Last year, the artist Jessica Jackson Hutchins pulled up stakes in Portland, Oregon, and moved her family—daughters Lottie, 7, and Sunday, 4, and husband Stephen Malkmus, the former frontman of the cult indie slacker band Pavement and current lead singer of the Jicks—to Berlin, a city she had “never laid eyes on,” she admits.
“We picked Berlin because we wanted a central place in Europe,” says the 41-year-old Hutchins. “Steve tours a lot over here, and he didn’t want to have to learn a new language at the age of 45.” The city is famously full of English-speaking hipster expats, she tells me. “One of the tech guys who used to tour with Pavement lives across the street from us. And the guy from Travis is nearby.” Though the Chicago-born Hutchins didn’t speak any German before she arrived, eight months later she appears at ease giving directions to cab drivers and greeting neighbors at her Mitte art studio complex in her adopted language. “I have the numbers down,” she says. “But it’s hard sometimes when I’m ordering art supplies.” When I visited her last spring, she was busy shipping works out to various group shows—to Brussels (Barbara Gladstone Gallery), to London (Timothy Taylor Gallery), and to Rome (Federica Schiavo Gallery). In 2013, she will have solo shows at New York’s Laurel Gitlen gallery and the Hepworth Wakefield museum in West Yorkshire, England. “Steve gets to be on manny duty a lot right now.”
Hutchins makes arts-and-crafts-style ceramic, textile, and furniture hybrids that speak to the chaos of domestic life, relationships, and motherhood. Her work would seem more apropos of Portland’s DIY ethos than, say, the highbrow European art world, but Hutchins is a bit too ironic for the feel-good Portlandia universe. She rolls her eyes at the preciousness of the city’s inhabitants, and later, when we meet up with Malkmus, he immediately fake chides her: “Did you make fun of Portland?”
Domestic objects—carved-up kitchen tables, her daughters’ old baby clothes—figure prominently in Hutchins’s world, and she is often placed in the feminist art canon, next to heavyweights like Judy Chicago and Betty Woodman. But that perspective seems reductive—her work is more about emotionalism than feminism. “She’s turning everyday items into art,” says Jenelle Porter, the senior curator at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art, who organized Hutchins’s first major solo show there late last year. “There’s a messiness, a sentiment that charges the work. It’s not slick. She’s not relying on conceptual modes.”
But that’s not to say there aren’t ideas behind it. What look like lo-fi artworks—blobs of clay or gnarled papier-mâché pieces atop discarded furniture or hammocks made from old fabric—are, in fact, clever puns, emotional metaphors, and linguistic tropes come to life.