Teesdale Street, the residential row in London’s Bethnal Green on which Union Gallery is located, was still asleep when I ambled over just after midday this past Saturday. Only walking by, one would be hard-pressed to distinguish Union from the small design agencies and homes in the neighborhood – the repetition of the well-kept storefronts and red-brick townhouses lulls the casual stroller into passivity, allowing the gallery’s fogged front window to go easily unnoticed. Fortunately, I found curator William Gustafsson finishing what was surely his pre-opening cigarette just outside the front door, signalling that I had reached my destination.
After a brief jangling of his keyring, Gustafsson let me in, and after directing me the pile of press releases neatly stacked next to the door, he left me alone with the mounted exhibition, Florence Hutchings’s The Place I Call Home. I was instructed to come find him when I was ready; there was evidently more to be seen, although I couldn’t fathom where, taking that the space seemed an admittedly well-lit box, with one door out, and another clearly leading to an adjacent back office.
I describe all of this not simply for the sake of setting the scene. I do it to draw attention to the intersection of art and our own lived experience, and to insert — in the most immediate of ways — the banality of humanity that precedes and follows our engagement with art, shaping our experience in many ways we recognize, and myriad more we don’t. For those of us who go to view work for reasons beyond seeing pretty pictures, we labor to impress into even ourselves notions of our own analytical objectivity, but in our heart of hearts we know that this could never be true; we will always seek out that which we are naturally drawn to, while our analysis will forever be tied to the vacillations of our own personal lives. After all, we are only human beings, who, despite the assertions of our own authority we cling so desperately to, are not above idiosyncrasy, or more aptly, the small successes or indignities that constitute the viscera and fat surrounding the meat of our lives, and by extension, our thoughts.
After only a few minutes in Union’s main gallery, I felt I understood what I was looking at with an almost overwhelming clarity: Florence Hutchings’s series The Place I Call Home works to undo the myth of authority and stature, appealing instead to the vulnerability and uncertainty we all share simply as a function of inhabiting this earth. This work is for the critic who is a son, brother, partner, tenant, and gym member before they are a writer, and for the viewer who had to pull themselves out of bed to go see the show, only to spill coffee on their favorite pair of jeans on the way over.
Hutchings’s signature style has long-since erred on the side of brusque, and she cites heavy influence from artists such as Matisse, Jean Dubuffet, and Betty Woodman. Yet, Hutchings’s move towards collage here lends her more stolid canvases an affective texture; the work (and human error) of her hand is foregrounded, while, if one looks close enough, they can see the watermarked backs of her materials, lending the work an air of provision and resourcefulness. This effect is only heightened when one sees that overlaid elements have been swapped from one piece to the next – outlines of shapes from one work linger tellingly in their artistic siblings, demonstrating a sense of gut intuition, and not staid formula, that governs Hutchings’s practice.
After rapping on the door to the back office, Gustafsson emerged to lead me down into Union’s labyrinthine basement, where he showed me to their underground gallery. Here I found mostly Hutchings’ recent work on paper – significantly smaller in size, and due to the medium, less forceful in its physical grandeur. Yet, what shines in her other work is magnified here – a consistency of thought and application, an extension of the mixing and matching that had been taken to a larger scale upstairs. Obviously, the questions that had consumed the work above had trailed into smaller negotiations here; while not so imposing (and thus artistically demanding), even otherwise “simple” scenes are toyed with, and replete with sincere personality – one gets the sense that Hutchings plays to her own tastes more than those of her fast-growing crowd.
Gustafsson had long since gone back upstairs, so having had my fill, I showed myself out, winding through what seemed to be old stage props and out of place kitchenware. Emerging back into the (rather disappointing) afternoon British sun, I began to walk back in the direction of my flat, where I had intended to immediately get to work on writing about the show. Having allowed an errant shoelace to go untended in my exhibition haze, I clumsily stepped on it with my other foot, catapulting me forward and nearly sending my bag – filled with my laptop, phone, and every other major purchase of the last five years – hurtling down to the unforgiving pavement. Fortunately, I caught myself (and my belongings) in time, but after gathering myself, and checking to see that no one had seen, I thought that, were she to have been there, Hutchings would have been proud, or at the very least, would have understood.