PRINT December 1977

Peter Hutchinson: From Earth Art to Story Art

PETER HUTCHINSON LEFT ENGLAND in 1953. His entire career as an artist belongs to the period since he settled in America. But even after 20-odd years, his art has a character that strikes me as very English. I could enumerate the points. One: it shows a specifically English devotion to gentle nature, albeit he came to prominence as an earth artist rather than a landscape painter. Two: it is literary and romantic. Three: it is often small-scale. He has done a fair bit of art writing and once tried his hand at a novel. From the beginning his earthworks needed explanatory notes; more recently, in his narrative or “story” pieces the handwritten texts have become a central part of the art itself. And yet, somehow, the points that set him respectably in line with Hogarth and Constable all seem to be beside the point. What comes across is rather an aura of slightly bumbling amateurism that brings back agreeable memories of a particular English type.

Hutchinson came to art as a drop-out from science. When he first settled in America he wanted to be a plant geneticist, but he quit agricultural school after one semester. Redirecting his interest in nature toward artistic ends resulted in an only partial readjustment of his mode of thought. His outlook is compounded of a host of little fragments of scientific facts. Observations on the rainfall in South Africa or the process of continental drift pop up like entries in a computerized encyclopedia whenever he is confronted with the reality of nature. When making earth art Hutchinson would research his sites as if preparing for a scientific expedition, but only to a level of anecdotal depth. It is this fascination with gems of specific fact that smacks so much of the English amateur: but the flaunting of snippets of erudition is offset by a genuine modesty that may at times cause him to hold back from a more ponderous scientific explanation.

There are many stories that turn against the artist himself. In the army, at the age of eighteen, he lost his one stripe for napping with his boots on while on guard duty. As a student he had difficulties with art history and could only distinguish French gothic cathedrals from English on the basis that the latter were usually surrounded by trees. In a painting exam his work was so bad that at the last minute he decided to hand in his palette. It earned him a bare pass. Another story hinges on his not knowing a single word of Italian. Absent-mindedness foils his attempt to plan ahead, and he is not above admitting an occasional gaffe. During his Foraging expedition he thought the mushrooms he was collecting for supper might be tricholoma personatum, but they turned out to be toadstools. He and his companion were violently ill for several hours.

Foraging is exceptional among Peter Hutchinson’s works—partly for the vividness of this incident, which has a life-and-death urgency he seldom approaches elsewhere. Basically it is an account in photographs and text (there was also a film) of a six-day backpacking hike through the Snowmass Wilderness of Colorado. The expedition became for him “one of those short times that subjectively is greater than a lifetime.” Lying awake under the stars he experiences a vision of the universe turning itself inside out: “solar systems become atoms, atoms become galaxies . . . Novae flee through red arterial valleys where squalling universes are born by Caesarian section from the folded bellies of a million Virgos.”

Like those other English romantics Hutchinson aspires to move between the levels of the mundane and the absolute, but by comparison he is a short-sighted romantic. The grain of sand comes out much more distinctly than the vision of the world. His is not the sort of mind that copes convincingly with large generalizations or abstractions, either from a scientific or poetic standpoint. Beyond the level of particular facts his observation gives way to a sort of health-food-store cosmology that mingles the theory of relativity with the I Ching, astrology, yoga, Jung, parapsychology, extraterrestrial culture and not eating meat. In two early essays he drew parallels between the stark geometric art objects of Minimal sculpture and the props of science-fiction movies. He suggests some similarity of purpose between science fiction and that sort of art. In a third article he argues that the concepts of past, present, and future are fictions. History is a fiction designed to give people power over the past much as science fiction gives them power over the future. Now, in Foraging, “Time and Space become fictions through which realities too numerous to contemplate appear.” Worse than that it may be a malicious fiction: “Coming back from these outer reaches I perceive it is all a lie.”

In the notes to his September exhibition at the Gibson Gallery, Hutchinson relates the idea of Foraging to the “ancient tribal cultures of food gatherers, a free-agricultural society, essentially nomadic,” but the word also has the sense of a casual collecting of this and that. Back-packing must be the most commonplace way to encounter nature. It is the sort of thing people do on their summer holidays. Coming in 1971, Foraging marks Hutchinson’s transition from earth art to story art. From its purple passages it is possible to glean a notion of reality as a complex of incompatible possibilities, and that does help rationalize the diversity of the later narratives. But it is the more intimate everyday aspect that really sets the pace—the reassuring sense that the foragers will both be safely back home in their beds by the end of the week.

Peter Hutchinson’s real base is home, whether in England or Provincetown; his worldview centers on house and garden. In the artist’s mind a piece like the Paricutin Project of 1970 may be about “the contrast of the organic in an inorganic environment—life versus death, life emerging from death,” but crumbs of white bread (even in quantities of 450 lbs. and even on the side of a volcano) have connotations of leftovers from the kitchen table that pull us back toward a more domestic ambience. Likewise with the triangle of crab-apples he constructed at the same site. It makes no difference that the crab-apples come from trees close to the volcano. And when he makes 100-foot-long parallel lines of lime in the sand and presses in grass seed, is it possible not to think that he is planting a lawn?

Only one of his earth projects is fully attuned to Hutchinson’s natural domesticity. Horseshoe Piece was done at Christmas 1970 while visiting his mother in England. She drove the car to different sites between Canterbury and Folkestone where he lined up 11 pots of chrysanthemums: in a cabbage field, on the beach, at the cliff’s edge, in a meadow, and on a manure heap. Back home he adjusted the photographs so the flowers appear to form a horseshoe. He felt the piece was important as a step from using the photograph as a reporting medium to dealing with its own structure as a photograph. If one has to take that approach it is hard to avoid noticing that Jan Dibbets does it so much more cleanly and incisively. Yet I find myself still enjoying Peter Hutchinson’s piece, in spite of its structural fussiness and triviality, for the intimate humor and charm of its greenhouse-to-village-smithy subject matter.

In 1969 the Museum of Modern Art showed Hutchinson alongside Dennis Oppenheim, but any such comparison must work to his disadvantage. He does not have the acuteness of intellect or the breadth of philosophical intuition that characterizes the best Conceptual art. Measured by those standards he is bound to be found wanting. What I am getting at is that there are other standards, other criteria; and those criteria mark him as significantly original in the mid-’70s whereas Dibbets and Oppenheim remain anchored to the achievement of Conceptual art.

The Alphabet Series from the summer of 1974 is Peter Hutchinson’s most diffuse venture; it has more physical parts, and is more inconsequential in its structural interconnections and in its accumulation of anecdote. In context, those points are all pluses. The new pluralism of the ’70s not only permits art to take many different forms, but accepts multiplicity and profusion as esthetic principles in themselves. The figure of speech “going from A to Z” suggests an encyclopedic exposure to the range of human experience. Hutchinson rides a slow train down the branch lines that takes in every stop three times over: sculpted letters of the alphabet, with a somewhat ungainly homemade look, are handcrafted from materials beginning with that letter of the alphabet—from “aluminum” to “homosote” to “nickels” to “zinc”; beneath them color photographs and beneath them narrative texts.

There are snippets of history (“Sweet History” under “H”, a story of the French Revolution and the Hope Diamond; in the photograph: a history book next to a jar of honey), botanical gems (Blue Roses under “B”, Xylamnecrosis under “X”), fragments of myth, proverbial wisdom and a lot of personal reminiscences, all interconnected by utterly incidental alphabetic associations. A picture of Hutchinson dressed as a pirate appears under a letter “K” wrapped in khaki cloth, along with the story about his losing that stripe in the army. At the end he says he would rather have been a pirate; hence: “Khaki Pirate”. There are occasional allusions to the art world, a mention of John Cage, a bit of self-referentiality à la Conceptual art. (Under “I,” he is photographed by a camera with a self-timing mechanism).

The episode where he admits he did not know a word of Italian (“S” for “Struggling with Language”) shows him wrestling with his own sculpted letters on the ground. It has echoes of Bruce Nauman eating his own words, but the photograph is more cluttered, the humor less sharp—but perhaps for that very reason also warmer, less intimidating. The jokes are hardly ever really funny, like Baldessari’s or Wegmen’s, or outrageous like Bill Beckley’s shaggy-dog stories. They often come across in a half-funny way that hovers between amusement and bemusement.

Under “J” is an anecdote about a “Blue Jay”; the photograph shows a blue letter “J” hanging in the garden above a bicycle seat. He had been reading Carl Jung and tried while sitting in the garden outside his cottage in Provincetown to sink into his unconscious and have a “mystical mythical experience.” Nothing happened, but a blue jay alighted on the seat of his bicycle nearby: “It looked at me for a few minutes as though it carried some important message.” Several anecdotes leave one with that note of uncertainty and in a way the photographs have the same effect. They are all nice, fairly big bright color prints. Very often only the objects in the foreground are in focus. Nothing untoward is indicated. The vagueness of a shadow gives the only intimation of a larger world outside—nothing more disturbing than a cool breath of air on a warm summer’s day.

The work since 1974 is in the same vein. From ’75, The Anarchist’s Story has an anecdote in photographs and text for each day of the week, with the name of the day above in sculpted letters. The piece itself is fine, but I am uneasy with the title; it has overtones of the political art that seemed to be so prevalent that year. I feel the same way about God Saw I Was Dog of 1976. The title is really the major part of it. Bronze letters show it the right away around at the very top, and rusted iron ones give it in reverse immediately underneath: “Dog Saw I Was God.” The symmetry of the words, rather than what is actually said, links it with the photographs at the bottom. In the center is a double-exposure shot of the artist’s head, superimposed over that of his dog, and then to one side a photograph of a spotted dog beside an unspotted car. On the other side, the same dog with spots painted out stands beside the same car with spots painted on. In all a very pretty piece, with just that feeling of contrived inconsequentiality that marks so much of his best work. But I wish the palindrome could have been achieved without introducing such a big notion as God.

Peter Hutchinson’s strength lies in poignant trivialities that build up an image of a personality, communicating its warmth as well as its quirks and foibles. It is a very human personality, eccentric no doubt, but also modest, approachable and generally low-keyed. Sadly, that low key may be difficult to sustain, especially in America, but while it lasts, artists like Hutchinson represent a welcome alternative to the faltering academicism of late Conceptual art.

Eric Cameron is director of the graduate program at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design.