Will Hutnick – Artist as Facilitator

At the Elizabeth Murray Artist Residency by Collar Works, Granville, NY, July 2019, Photo by Monica Hamilton

Will Hutnick is an artist, curator, co-director of Ortega Y Gasset Projects in Brooklyn from 2015 to 2020 and Director of Artistic Programming at the Wassaic Project upstate NY. In his paintings Will Hutnick is using rollers, and includes other mono-printing-like methods to create repetitive passages which form playful and unexpected relationships between shapes and colors. He shares with Art Spiel some of his work process, reflections on the ways his paintings have developed, and some of his other art related practices.

AS: Our interview was conducted a while before the Corona pandemic. Life has changed since. How are you coping these days and what are your thoughts about the road ahead?

Will Hutnick: A lot has certainly changed since we last spoke. I know it wasn’t that long ago, but it feels like forever ago, considering the current crisis. I am very grateful that my husband and I still have our jobs and are able to work; and more importantly, we’re both healthy. We’re also really fortunate to be living in a rural location (Wassaic) and out of NYC, so we have the space to walk outside without running into anyone. I don’t take any of these things for granted – I remind myself every day how fortunate we are. It has been really challenging to not physically see family and friends, particularly my brother and his kids, and to not be physically present to see and help my Mom and my mother-in-law during this time.

Will Hutnick, All The Rest Is Hidden By Clouds, 2019, acrylic, colored pencil, crayon and spray paint on canvas, 28 x 22 inches, Photo courtesy of the artist

AS: Let’s start with your painting. Looking at your body of work from 2013 to 2019, it seems to me that from early on you are exploring the ways in which pictorial spaces can express the spaces we currently inhabit – the virtual and the physical condense, the idea of topography and landscape merge. Earlier on, in 2013 you seem to explore many possibilities, in 2014 I sense the budding of forms that lead up to your current form. Does that make sense to you and if so, is there a shifting point you can identify and share its genesis?

Will Hutnick: I think that’s an accurate statement. In 2013 and 2014, I was primarily working on paper, and although I thought (and talked about) the work as painting, “collage” is probably a more apt term given the works’ formal characteristics. I was using tape extensively in my work then: not to perfectly mask an area, but as its own positive shape and stencil. The painted tape gives that work clarity. My studio in Bushwick at this time was literally covered with strips and pieces of painted tape that were left-over and discarded while working, every inch on every wall was eventually covered with tape (I used to describe my studio with a lot of “Jumanji” references). Because I have always been materially focused and object-oriented — obsessed with saving every scrap and piece of paper, not to mention saving things in general — I would save all of the pieces of torn tape, every single one. I had a rule where each piece of tape could not touch another piece on the walls, so that there was always some negative space creeping out. This was done out of necessity to maximize my wall space.

If I could differentiate the work between 2013 and 2014, as you pointed out, I would say that 2013 was the year my studio and work exploded and I created (primarily) all of the painted tape that I would use in subsequent years and works. That production of materials created an influx and overflow of possibilities. When my studio walls became literally so full of painted tape that I couldn’t put any more pieces on them, my “system” was failing; I needed to find another mode of working, which is why the work from 2014 started to have a different kind of organization and structure. There is also more of an internal logic within that work; for example, some of those works from 2014 were created to “clean up” the studio and de-clutter the walls. I would take a cross-section of one of my studio walls and fill a single sheet of paper until it was full and/or complete, which was essentially one and the same. That decision and action seemed beyond my control. It excited me that this specific work needed to exist in order to help facilitate and make other works. I’ve grown more and more attached to the idea that I’m the facilitator of the work, that I solely set up the parameters for the work to exist.

AS: Your paintings seem to be abstract but the titles are at times pretty literal. I am looking at Wassaic Islands 2 for instance, a screen-print based image from 2015 which resembles a map. What is the idea behind this work and perhaps you can touch here on how you think about your work in context of abstract art?

Will Hutnick: I like playing when I title work, negotiating between titles that reference something very specific and literal, and titles that are more poetic, abstract, and/or have seemingly nothing to do with the formal properties of the work. Typically, if there is a specific place or location featured in the title of a work (as in Wassaic Island 2), that information directly references where the work was produced, or where the work was inspired by, but mostly as a direct nod to its creation. The physical environment, context, and location of my studio space play an important factor in my work. It becomes sometimes necessary and obligatory to honor the actual space. I owe the space that.

Getting back to Wassaic Island 2: I was an artist-in-residence at the Wassaic Project in August 2014, and spent a lot of my time making screen-prints because of access to a Print Shop (which hasn’t been available to my practice since my grad school at Pratt in 2011). There are two layers of screen-prints within this work: one looks like hand-drawn lines, which are the outlines of pieces of torn tape that were physically on my studio walls in Wassaic; the other screen-printed element is a hand-drawn image “traced” from a paint splotch found within a previous painting.

While I was in residence at Wassaic, in such a rural setting drastically different from my normal surroundings in Brooklyn, I was beginning to lean into the fact that my work was being read in terms of landscape and map-making. Instead of shying away from those points of reference, I made a conscious decision to dive deeper. I wanted to give the work a different intentionality, and really think about why I was so drawn to topographical maps and ideas around place and time. I was excited to play with the combination of literal titles and specific imagery – such as the screen-printed areas, that stem from physical objects and actual things – mixed with my abstract aesthetic and urge to paint flat acrylic shapes and colors.

Will Hutnick, Wassaic Islands 2, 2015, acrylic, paint marker and screenprint on paper, 15.75 x 11.75 inches, Photo courtesy of the artist

AS: In 2016 it seems that your spaces are becoming more consistent, yet still highly explorative. I am curious to know more about your ideas behind at The Return of Prehistoric Forest, Another Dimension Another Dimension and Cave Slip Slip Slide – how do you think they relate to each other and what are you exploring in each?

Will Hutnick: It’s interesting that you specifically cite those three works, because all three have screen-printed elements. Another Dimension Another Dimension has always been a particular favorite of mine (the title is a Beastie Boys reference). A lot of works on paper from 2014 and beyond were directly influenced from my time at the Wassaic Project that year. At Wassaic, I had a screen burned with a hand-drawn image, which traced a “fractaled” painting moment when two surfaces pressed against one another and then pulled back, leaving a textured, fractal-like surface of repetitive grooves and ridges. I decided to print this image on as many surfaces as I could while I was in residence and had the accessibility of working in a Print Shop. I am not wired to make a perfect or editioned print. It’s never about perfection, but rather exploration, so I was just interested in getting down the information as best as possible, generating moments and jumping off points for future works.

In each of the three works that you mentioned, the goal when starting was to preserve as much of the screen-printed area as possible, to create an environment for that image to live in. The “subject matter”/positive shape/image was already there; it was almost a “given”, almost viewed as a “found object” to a certain extent. So rather than invent the image, I just needed to give the given image a larger context, an environment.

That approach—honoring the information that is already present, treating that information as something found — is very similar to the work that I am currently making. With this current body of work, I start each painting by using rollers and other tools and just black paint on a raw, unstretched canvas. After the canvas is filled with information, it is then cut up into individual paintings and stretched. I try to listen to what that first “printed” layer is telling me, what it needs, how it needs to be defined. It’s about (ideally) honoring that space and building the environment. I like that the above mentioned works, along with my recent work, have the same jumping off points, respectively; they’re more interconnected, and the forms become self-similar. Not identical or exact, but similar, echoing. And because they’re created from the same screen-printed image (or the same raw canvas, in my recent work) they become part of a larger network and language, rather than just individual entities.

I have a twin brother, and this reminds me of something that someone once told me about their experience being a twin: When asked “how does it feel to be a twin?” they responded “how does it feel to float on alone by yourself all of your life”? I think a lot about how the shapes and networks and information in my work is part of something much larger and grander than itself; something beyond itself. That is something that I’ve always grappled with, both in my work and in my personal life, and I hope that as I grow older I continue to attempt to find ways to articulate those concerns.

Will Hutnick, The Return Of Prehistoric Forest, 2016, acrylic, paint marker and screenprint on paper, 30 x 22 inches, Photo courtesy of the artist

Will Hutnick, Another Dimension Another Dimension, 2016, acrylic, paint marker, screen print, spray paint and tape on paper, 31.5 x 23.75 inches, Photo courtesy of the artist

Will Hutnick, Cave Slip Slip Slide, 2016, acrylic, screenprint and spray paint on paper, 15 x 11 inches, Photo courtesy of the artist

AS: You describe in a 2019 interview in Uprise Art that there is an element of physicality and performance that excites you in your process. Can you elaborate on that?

Will Hutnick: The idea around performativity in relation to my work is also related to the idea of the artist as facilitator. My current body of work starts from a single large piece of canvas on the ground, and by using rollers, other tools, and mono-printing-like processes, shapes and passages are repeated over and over again. They’re spontaneous, unpredictable, fun and playful, and it allows me to get out of my head for a bit, bearing witness to what’s happening within the space at the present moment. I think that exploration and experimentation is what really drives my practice. I make a lot of work, and a lot at the same time, so not everything is a winner. That’s the nature of my process, to work through things, to figure out problems and invent while I’m in it. I am not basing any of the compositions from sketches; there is a level of improvisation and choreography built in.

AS: Somewhere in Half-Light at The Java Project is a 15×30’ mural in Brooklyn. The scale and specific site are dramatically different. In the previous year I see a range of roughly 8 to 30 inches while in 2017 your scale blew up. Does this observation make sense to you and if so, what are your thoughts about the scale shift, how it informs your process and imagery?

Will Hutnick: The mural at the Java Project in 2017 was significantly larger than other work I’ve previously done, though I have worked fairly large in the past. Scale is usually highly contingent upon the space I’m working in and have access to. In 2015, when I was an artist-in-residence at Yaddo or later at DNA Gallery in Provincetown in 2017, where I had spacious studios with a lot of wall and floor space, I was able to paint much larger. I think that in an ideal world, all my work would be on the larger side of things. I love how you become completely engulfed in that world and space on a work of a larger size, that it’s overwhelming and intoxicating but also comforting and warm. Those dualities and vibrations are full of so many unexpected possibilities.

I think about the work in relation to my own body and my wingspan; the ~70” x 60” scale is about my full arms’ reach, which is important. There is something about the works’ relationship to the body that isn’t just about my process/performativity/print-making-like methods, but also about a queer body and queer perspective and a queer navigation of space, that all together makes that decision around scale even more important and valuable. For me, it’s all about creating and opening up space, and trying to open up a dialogue where my versions of navigating daily, lived space as a gay individual inform the work. There is an “otherness” that is built into my queer identity, which I believe informs my decisions, and is reflected back through disorienting patterns and awkward color relationships. I think that experience is slightly easier to emphasize, and for me to understand, when the work is larger.

The pictorial and illusionistic spaces are physically larger, which create a larger atmosphere and playing field, versus a smaller painting that is restricted by its dimensions, and thus becomes a window, or an object. Also, it’s really exciting for me to constantly play with scale – and work on numerous paintings all at once – because one mark or shape framed within one painting has such a different perception, weight and function when it’s on a different scale. It’s all about context, so if I’m able to reorient myself and my forms, they can take on multiple/additional meanings simply through a change in scale.

Will Hutnick, Somewhere In The Half-Light, 2017, acrylic, crayon, paint marker and spray paint, ~15 x 30 feet, The Java Project, Brooklyn, NY, Photo courtesy of the artist

AS: Looking at the last 2 years, it seems to me that you have gone a long way to fine tune the relationship between space, pattern, movement, color – the patterns are very incisive, ranging from bold to subtle and the compositions seem more concise. I am intrigued by Like Gatherings of Ghosts. What was the idea behind this painting? How did you start it?

Will Hutnick: Sometimes I think that I’m just making the same painting over and over again. Because of new life experiences and a new and/or expanded visual vocabulary, as well as a stronger, more confident way for me to talk about my work, the image isn’t actually changing that much, but rather the means to make that image are constantly changing. I’m always figuring out what’s important within the work, and in the past few years have been thinking more about making decisions purposeful. That’s not to say that chance isn’t still a significant factor; I just don’t want to rely on chance as much as I’ve done in the past. I recognize now that that past reliance on chance was too strict and rigid and was actually a defense mechanism where I didn’t need to “own” all of the things happening within a single work, that I just could justify elements because they were “out of my control”. I don’t want to do that now. I want to have license over all of the elements and shapes and marks and patterns and colors – they all matter equally, they all need to exist, to prove a level of existence.

In Like Gatherings of Ghosts, I was really thinking about “in-between” spaces: depicting two rock/mountain-like formations that are seemingly fixed, that could be two opposing forces or two sides of the same thing, as well as simultaneously depicting forms that are melting/expanding/contracting/moving in time. I think about ideas around “time” in relation to my work, as well as how “queer time” is different than “real time”. There is a prescribed, heteronormative value of time that I’m not a part of, and am not participating in. The shapes and patterns and forms within my work do not have to necessarily participate in expected or traditional notions of time, they’re beyond that.

Will Hutnick, Like Gathering of Ghosts, 2019, acrylic, ink and spray paint on canvas, 28 x 22 inches, Photo courtesy of the artist

AS: Tell me a bit about how you became involved in curatorial projects and in artist run venues?

Will Hutnick: I graduated from Pratt in 2011 and shortly thereafter got a studio space in Bushwick with some friends who were also Pratt classmates (Polly Shindler, Kelly Worman, Caitlin Peluffo and Nikki Nolan). It was important to continue to foster community and the momentum from grad school. Although I was constantly making work, I found myself stuck and a little lost, and really wanted to be proactive and create opportunities for myself and my friends/peers, instead of waiting around and letting opportunities find us (because at that time, they weren’t, that’s the reality). We had 1-2 pop-up shows in our studio space in 2011 and 2012, and I enjoyed bringing art and artists together, creating community. I was also making a lot of studio visits around this time to see as much work as I could, and it was around then that Polly Shindler and I started approaching spaces to put on pop-up shows outside of the studio.

After we had convinced 1-2 galleries (Brooklyn Fire Proof right near our studio, and LaunchPad in Crown Heights, close to where I was living at the time) to let us curate a show, and to share the types of artists we were interested in, we were very fortunate enough to receive a year-long curatorial residency at Trestle Projects in Gowanus. That opportunity came with the support from Trestle Gallery, but it was essentially an independent operation where we ran a gallery on our own for an entire year, and produced around 8 – 10 exhibitions. What a pivotal gift, as well as a crash course in how to run a gallery, which paved the way for my involvement as a Co-Director at Ortega y Gasset Projects in 2015 (along with my current role as the Director of Artistic Programming at the Wassaic Project). My involvement with these generous organizations, as well as my independent curatorial projects, are a great opportunity to be an active participant and to provide a platform for artists and share work that needs to be seen and heard.

AS: And what are you looking for in your curatorial projects and in the venue/s you are running?

Will Hutnick: I think that it all comes down to community and support. I want to work with artists who are generous, positive and respectful, with an emphasis on supporting under-recognized and under-represented artists. I constantly recognize my own privilege as a white cis male and the role that I play at the Wassaic Project (and previously at OyG Projects). I’m fortunate enough to be in positions of power that create opportunity and space for other artists and creative thinkers, and I don’t take that responsibility lightly. I want to pay it forward, and recognize that these roles that I occupy can share those platforms of artistic support.

Instead of building an exhibition around a specific idea or concept, I typically do the opposite, and think about artists that I would really like to work with and then go from there. In that sense, the conceptual backbone of my curatorial projects grow organically. I don’t feel the need to select artists or work to fit a specific topic, that doesn’t really interest me. It’s not my call to assign meaning to anyone else’s work. Instead, I want to build conversations around that work and foster contextual clues.

AS: Can we take a quick peek at your studio? How is your work developing these days?

Will Hutnick: I was working towards a solo exhibition at Lesley Heller in New York originally scheduled to open April 15th. The show was going to be called The Stars You Can’t See, which is a reference from Jennifer Egan’s 2011 novel “A Visit From The Good Squad”. I’ve used that novel in the past as inspiration as well; what a gem of a book. With my new body of work, I’m trying to focus on opening up space and pairing down the information, which is really challenging for me because at heart I’m kind of a maximalist; it’s that “go go go” philosophy built into my DNA that I want to ease a bit. I’m trying to work slower so that every element within each painting is ideally getting a little more specific, purposeful and personal.

My first impulse is that I want to do more: with helping my immediate family and friends, but also within the art community and the world at large; but besides from a handful donations to some charitable organizations, as well as some bars and restaurants that are really struggling right now that are dear to me, I feel a little overwhelmed and lost on how to actively help. That feeling of helplessness is at the forefront of my mind daily; I’m trying to brainstorm forms of support on a larger scale, but that’s getting to be really overwhelming and is making me super anxious.

So I’m trying to slow down, go for long walks every day, practice daily yoga (mostly via YouTube, what a treasure), and take deep breaths, and ultimately try to be more mindful. I’ve found that I’m still getting into the studio and working fairly regularly, on new paintings and drawings, but now I really need to listen to music while I work so that I can stay present in the studio and mitigate those extra distractions and anxieties from infiltrating the space. I can’t avoid those completely – and I know that it’s a privileged position to be in, to even be able to get into my studio and paint – but I am doing my best to try and stay present and grounded.

Etty Yaniv works on her art, art writing and curatorial projects in Brooklyn. She founded Art Spiel as a platform for highlighting the work of contemporary artists, including art reviews, studio visits, interviews with artists, curators, and gallerists. For more details contact by Email: artspielblog@gmail.com