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boxed light bodies

Heather Hutchison's work has always stood outside the most common art categories. As much light sculpture as painting, the 3-dimensional shadow box, constructed of plywood and enamel, creates a vision chamber that literally takes light captive and lets it radiate omnidirectionally through the attached Plexiglas surface. Thin layers of wax and pigment, brushed uniformly on the surface, act both to catalyze and diffuse the tempered light, bringing about a deep vibrancy of hue and value. The result is a rare non-coercive, indeed responsive, art form, in which color-luminosity registers the changing natural light specific to any moment of a given day. To experience this is to get a direct and very real sense of the scientific truism that the only constant is change.

In past months Hutchison's work has taken on the charge, but not the figuration, of recent media images, images that are sometimes eerily powerful, of hurricanes, tornados, floods, tsunamis, and earthquakes. Adapting the extraordinary technique that she has invented and perfected, and the visual language carefully honed, over some eighteen years of work, she ambivalently engages energies of natural disasters as fields of force. In this way she explores her own contemporary sublime, defined at once by fatal, destructive power and by invasive beauty. One could say that she marries a post-Minimal approach to an art medium with evolved Romantic concerns — the perilous connections between inner and outer nature.

What really has disaster got to do with art? New Orleans artists may be living this question right now. Hutchison's new work obviously does not pretend to answer such a question, but it does comprise a response out of the foundational principles of her art. What is interesting in this regard is the fact that, while the present show mentions a connection with recent natural disasters, she has been doing essentially the same kind of work for nearly two decades, and not much besides. Such a mono-medial commitment could be considered obsessional, if the basis were psychologically compulsive; simplistic, if the work's apparently narrow premises show a lack of imaginative access to a medium's possibilities; or visionary, if it takes basic terms of a medium and reveals their unlimited possibilities in embodying a life stance. To me it is clear that she operates out of a vision; yet vision is one of those terms, like art, that is open to endless redefinition, and, except when used to clarify or amplify the particular work's qualities, is best left open. Here it deserves specification because it answers to something at the heart of why the work is so compelling.

Hutchison came to the medium of beeswax through a job connection some eighteen years ago, rather than through art school; that is, her art, like that of many artists at the time, is not born of a pedagogically received tradition so much as a practical engagement. This allowed her freedom to innovate according to specific artistic necessity, rather than any attempt to adopt a going art tendency. Obviously her personal response to certain artists constitutes influence, and her work has been identified with Minimalism. Yet the development within such an atypical medium has found its own course (one as resonant, for instance, with California light artists as with Minimalists), which has shown its native strength in endurance and continuing responsiveness to new challenges.

Specifically, she works with the medium's literal transparency — it emanates subtle, nuanced color from an underlayered strip of suffused but solid color — in such a way that it is self-illuminating. It appears to give off light as a seeing through. You seem to be seeing right into a physical depth, an act of staring into that pulls out the luminosity. Is this characteristic of encaustic? Hard to answer in general (although encaustic is supposed to be responsible for the life-like light in the eyes of Roman figures), but at the very least it is more so once you have seen this work, which goes outside traditional uses of beeswax. And this is one way that such use of the medium causes a reflection on the nature of the medium as filter of emanative light and, at the same time, more broadly on the nature of illumination itself.

So the work doesn't refer to visionary or spiritual reality or offer a key to another dimension, like so much explicitly spiritual work, which can be rather tiring to whatever actual visionary sense one might have, or to the thought thereof. Rather, it draws all attention back down into substance and its capacity to allow a natural play of light. In this way the medium shows itself not as a representation of something “beyond” but an extension of what we are or can be in our relation to physical reality. It's “about” the non-separation of spirit and matter as the skin is “about” the body. It calls for a seeing into how we hold where we are and dwell around what is held. A physical experience and awareness of what it is to be here.

At a time like the one we are living now, the experience of Katrina and other natural disasters the world over, more numerous and implicative of the state of the planet than perhaps our organic systems are ready to process, can awaken a medium to further dimensions of itself. The art is a fundamental part of the processing, and for the artist and the viewer it may be just the part that is repressed by public awareness of challenging disasters and by the knee-jerk fear response that we can hardly avoid in the face of so much suffering. The art, however, starts where the knee-jerk response stops.

In appreciating Hutchison's particular way of embodying the emotion and intellectual challenge of natural disasters, it is important to note that her work did not go through big changes to accommodate the challenge. There is, to be sure, a new presence of somewhat more aggressive color, which has not shown up in her work before. Some broad solid black lines, for instance, may be inspired by dark storm clouds; atypical reds seem to carry a force of bleeding that shows up in violent nature. In this way the work served the challenge. And this is precisely what points to the presence of vision within the medium, that it serves in such radically different registers of the human, and yet does not morph about in search of an answer.

Evidently I had a small part in this process when, shortly after Katrina, I e-mailed her some amazing photos of threatening natural phenomena — hurricane and tornado images of extraordinary beauty and eeriness that startle the mind at first glimpse — which she now says got her going on the contemplation of such images showing natural disaster as image. Why did I send them to her when I was only sending them to a few friends (I don't normally send her such things)? In retrospect I understand that it had to do with a quality of light in those pictures that in the back of my mind resonated with the light in her work. These are images so strange as to provoke questions like “How is this possible? How could anyone take such pictures and live to show them? How can something be so otherworldly beautiful and tear apart the fabric of planetary life?”

It leads all the way to questions like “what is nature?” We have a preferred view of nature at any given time that is highly circumstantial and indeed self-serving. On the Atlantic Ocean, where I am at this particular moment in Florida, I see the waves in part as beautiful benign opportunities for physical pleasure to eye and body; if I get wind, so to speak, of another hurricane, I'll hightail it out of here with a clear view of nature as uncontrollable threat. Not so many years ago humans had the fantasy of controlling hurricanes by chemically seeding them, and this succeeded in diverting the course of a hurricane, but, lacking real control, this effort ended by pushing the hurricane into another human settlement with even more disastrous results. Human “colonialism” extended to nature is often as self-defeating as its social forms. Controlling forest fires sometimes ends up making forests more vulnerable and the eventual effect on human settlement even worse.

The artist has this to say: “Our natural environment is not characterized by equilibrium, as many have long and rather wishfully believed, and, as science now insists, there is no such thing as 'balance' in nature; so the real danger in fact is not the disturbance we ordinarily fear, but the absence of disturbance, which man attempts to impose on nature – often disastrously. Imminent unpredictable change urges us to live life with more focused awareness, sharpening our senses and arousing our sense of being. Night has its own clarity that rivals that of day.”

Thinking in terms of non-linear dynamics as regards nature helps us respect phenomena as self-generating and self-organizing. The same can be said of our approach to art, to the way color comes about in a field, or texture gives the sense of body, or the play of light inside a translucent medium configures. Hutchison's work encourages its own species of contemplation. It reminds me of the scientific exercises proposed by Goethe in his Theory of Color, which emphasize direct contact with light in various manifestations as self-instructive. Titles like No Wind, No Waves draw the attention into a mood of natural engagement. The artist wants us to stand and stare, not search for concept or intention, in a way related to the process she goes through, which includes a certain committed not knowing, and wondering. It's a view of art as primary source, subtler, perhaps more heartening, than answers.

©George Quasha

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