New York

Jessica Jackson Hutchins

Laurel Gitlen/Derek Eller Gallery

When certain artists transition from emerging to emerged, the moment is palpable. This spring, it happened for Jessica Jackson Hutchins, with concurrent solo shows at Laurel Gitlen (formerly Small A Projects) and Derek Eller Gallery and her inclusion in the Whitney Biennial, where she was represented with Couch for a Long Time, 2009—a worn sofa from her childhood home, covered in Obama-related newspaper clippings and occupied by ceramics. The artist’s raw early ceramic and papier-mâché works project an artless, punk sensibility, but she has described her recent output as framed by what seems like punk’s opposite pole: domesticity and motherhood. Her battered furniture has a family history; her patches of shabby fabric are cut from outgrown garments. The lumpen ceramics that hunker on couches and chairs inescapably bring to mind dense, weighty humans. Claes Oldenburg’s sagging sculptures, the shadow of antiquity in Huma Bhabha’s figures, Nicole Cherubini’s overwrought vessels, and, of course, the relationship between craft and feminism in Judy Chicago’s work are relevant but insufficient comparisons. Those artists specified the referents for their ceramics and worn objects; Hutchins’s latest sculptures, even at their most referential—as in Couch for a Long Time—confidently float free of clear signification to things outside personal subjectivity.

The couch as artifact of the everyday is once again the theme in Couple, 2010, shown at Derek Eller; it sags deeply under the weight of a hulking Hydrocal plaster duo connected from the necks down, like Siamese twins. A V-shaped ceramic vase is perched between their heads, another nexus within the form, and one “figure” appears to extend an arm around the other. The pair are almost cloyingly sweet, despite the gaping hole in their backs. The threadbare sofa looks to have been distractedly spray-painted purple, mimicking the hue of the nearby monoprint Whole Things, 2010, which, like many of Hutchins’s recent works on paper, is collaged with used objects, in this case a pair of boxer shorts and the Robert Stone paperback Dog Soldiers. Similar echoes reverberated softly throughout the Eller show: Set in a corner close to Couple was the much grimmer Orange Bowl, 2010, a pair of kneeling legs with a small ceramic resting atop the truncated waist—a disfigured wanderer blindly groping, maybe, for the resting place (or warm companionship) of Couple.

In the show at Laurel Gitlen, Hutchins’s works performed precariousness: Cracks in ceramics were visible and the vessels barely balanced on unstable, irregular surfaces. In Last Unicorn, 2009, which Hutchins based on a drawing by her young daughter, two pots balance on the slopes of a spottily painted heap of plaster. Leaning Figure, 2010, is a Hydrocal blob slumping heavily against the wall and cradling two oddly shaped ceramics in the hollow of its “collarbone.” The broken wooden chair of Sweater Arms, 2010, which bears a lumpy pot and a sweater with arms dangling limply to the ground, barely stands.

For all the nurturing, supporting, and prevention of breakage going on in Hutchins’s work, there’s a great deal of clumsiness and barrenness that hints at something deeply melancholy. Kitchen Table Allegory, 2010, at Derek Eller, is a wooden table with an absent central leaf and a large, pulpy ceramic bowl nestled into the void, its innards the grotesque red and purple of, well, innards. Chicago’s Dinner Party and gaping wounds seem implied here, though Hutchins innocuously identifies the table as her family’s gathering point and the surface where she made the monoprints on view. So although the artist speaks of reclamation and recycling, signs of instability, absence, and pervasive references to disfiguration push the work beyond exclusively personal terrain toward something existential and corporeal, evoking a lineage of brooding modernist sculpture including Dada masks that reference war injuries and Giacometti’s strained, emaciated figures. Webs of personal reference can feel narcissistic—and existentialism anachronistic— but Hutchins’s sculptures get to the heart of the folly and fragility of the social and physical body while maintaining a politics of the personal rooted not exclusively in familial reference but in the resistance of virtuosic craft and its relationship to thrift. Hers is complicated work, deserving of its emergence.

Nick Stillman