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Published June 27, 2024

Horizons Beyond Time: A Conversation with Will Hutnick

By Taliesin Thomas

Taliesin Thomas, Ph.D. is an artist-philosopher, lecturer, writer, and arts professional based in Troy, NY. Since 2007, Thomas is the founding director of AW Asia and Art Issue Editions, two private art collections that serve as the basis for collaborations and curatorial projects with major museums, institutions, and artists worldwide. She is also the director of the Artist Initiative and Critical Forum Program at The Arts Center of the Capital Region. Thomas has published with Hyperallergic, Yale University Press, Chronogram, Dirt, ARTPULSE, Journal of Daoist Studies, Yishu: Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art, JCCA: Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art, and ArtAsiaPacific magazine.

Will Hutnick (b. 1985, Manhasset, NY) is an artist based in Sharon, CT. He received his M.F.A. from Pratt Institute in 2011 and his B.A. from Providence College in 2007. Hutnick is a 2021 NYSCA/NYFA Artist Fellow in Painting, as well as a grant recipient from the Berkshire Taconic Foundation in 2017 and 2023, and the Foundation for Contemporary Arts in 2016. His solo exhibitions include Geary Contemporary (Millerton, NY), Pamela Salisbury Gallery (Hudson, NY), Elijah Wheat Showroom (Newburgh, NY), Standard Space (Sharon, CT), Providence College Galleries (Providence, RI), One River School (Hartsdale, NY), The Java Project (Brooklyn, NY), and St. Thomas Aquinas College (Sparkill, NY). Selected group exhibitions include the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art (New Paltz, NY), Hollis Taggart (Southport, CT), Geary Contemporary (Millerton, NY), 1969 Gallery (New York, NY), Heaven Gallery (Chicago, IL) and Collar Works (Troy, NY). Hutnick has been an artist-in-residence at Yaddo, Elizabeth Murray Artist Residency, Vermont Studio Center, Hambidge Center for the Creative Arts and Sciences, Soaring Gardens Artists’ Retreat, DNA Artist Residency, Hewnoaks, Stove Works, and the Wassaic Project, as well as a curator-in-residence at Benaco Arte and Trestle Projects. He has curated numerous exhibitions at SPRING/BREAK Art Show, Ortega y Gasset Projects, Trestle Projects, Pratt Institute, Wassaic Project, Troutbeck and Standard Space. His work has been featured in The New York TimesNew American Paintings, and Hyperallergic, among others. From 2015-20, Hutnick was one of the Co-Directors of Ortega y Gasset Projects, an artist-run curatorial collective and exhibition space in Brooklyn. He is currently the Director of Artistic Programming at the Wassaic Project, a nonprofit organization that uses art and art education to foster positive social change.

Studio portrait of Will Hutnick, 2022. Photo credit: Walker Esner

I would like pick-up where we left off from our last conversation during the opening of your solo exhibition at Geary Contemporary this past February, namely your comments about “queerness contextualized” and “queerness as a future phenomenon that doesn’t exist in the present.” Please further unpack this rich reference.

WH: Sure, one of the first things I want to mention is that at some point, I want to say this was about five or six years ago, it became important to contextualize the work through a queer lens. I think I was a little afraid to do so, like afraid to say that language and to have the umbrella of the work be through a queer context—either afraid or resisted. I gave an artist talk at Ortega y Gasset Projects in 2018, an artist-run space that I used to co-run with seven to eight lovely artists, and I said it out loud just to see how it would land in the room.

Of course, I built it up to myself as like “oh my god,” I am going to say it, but it wasn’t obviously a big deal. I mention that because I feel like because I was so hesitant to frame the work in that way for a while, I knew that there was something there. The thing that I was either skeptical of, or afraid of, or just uncomfortable of—I got to really dive into that, you know? I am avoiding this for some reason. 

There was a time prior where I discovered Jose Esteban Muñoz’s Cruising Utopia from 2008, this was right after graduating from Pratt in 2011—there was really no conversations of the work about being queer or that context at grad school; I was also all over the place with my practice-

And when I read that text, something clicked. I always talked about my work through this lens of ‘there are shapes and there are forms that are moving - they might be colliding with one another,’ but more so they live in alternative realities with one another; that these various moments of time are co-existing in a space that I conjured up, that I created, that I facilitated. Sometimes they are butting into each other, sometimes there is a really jarring connection in a nice way, but most of the time I feel like they are just these simultaneous realities. It was really hard to articulate that beyond formal concerns, of like ‘look what I did here’ and then ‘look what I did here.’

Once I finally read Cruising Utopia and it articulated and framed queerness as something that does not exist in the present, that has a strong hold in the past, and as a futurity-bound phenomenon—it felt like I was connecting these dots between the passages and these compositions that I was already creating, but I didn’t have the language for that, or, at least, more conceptual language. I feel like I had formal language, and that [queer-context] language came years after the fact and had to catch up with the work or I had to catch up with that language. It really became this epitome moment of ‘how do I address notions of time,’ especially through a two-dimensional space, and ‘how am I processing time and the passage of time while personally trying to hold on to the present’? And recognizing it is a kind of futile enterprise to do so. 

Image 1: Will Hutnick, "Photopsia", 2024, Acrylic, colored pencil, ink, sand and wax pastel on canvas, 60 in x 84 in. Image 2: Will Hutnick, installation images from "SATELLITE", solo exhibition at Geary Contemporary (Millerton, NY) February 24 - April 7, 2024. Images courtesy of the artist.

I so appreciate your comments about time and queerness as a phenomenon. We are in a new era and it’s invigorating to hear this dialogue in this way, especially as it aligns with your aesthetic.

WH: If I remember correctly, Muñoz’s text must have also been talking about the AIDS crisis in the 80s and the reality that there was not a future for a large set of the population, particularly LGBTQ+ folks; and, essentially, there was not a present, or a present that was cut very dramatically and abruptly short. Obviously, we cannot erase that history, that history is probably a part of every queer artist going forward, even if they are not consciously thinking of that trauma and that reality. It’s there and I think that’s why queerness is this elusive shape-shifting device, I think that’s why it is so shapeshifting, because for a long time—and probably still—it’s either illegal or impossible to be queer, challenging to come out, all the things.

This is such a strong dialogue and to be continued. Turning to your recent activities, you are having a terrific professional moment with exhibitions and installations, congrats on all this great work! I interface with a lot of different artists, and I think it’s necessary to ask: are you experiencing any insecurities about navigating this industry? Please share any wisdom about how you are doing it.

WH: I am always anxious in general, let alone during shows, and what happens afterwards. Sometimes it’s almost ridiculous. I mean, I close a show and I am like ‘well, I will never show again, that’s it! I am done!’ Or maybe it’s not ridiculous, but that’s an immediate thought that usually transpires during a de-install or even while a show is still happening. With Geary Contemporary, for example, I knew their programming for years from the city. I would stop by and say hello and I knew someone who worked with Geary for a long time. Once they started their space in Millerton, I would continue to visit and developed this organic relationship that was not tied to my work, it was just about being friendly, asking questions, getting to know one another. My recent solo exhibition, Satellite, grew out of years of conversations and being nice in the world.

This is so valuable because so many artists are striving to get to this next phase of where you are at: you are consistently showing, you are doing the thing. Artists want to get there and ‘being nice in the world,’ it is exactly this.

WH: Occasionally I teach a professional practices course through the NYC Crit Club and one thing that I always stress in this course—and it’s so simple and I owe everything to my mom for this—is the thank you note. Follow-up after a studio visit, after an interview, after an exhibition. I will even hand-write notes to gallerists; and I don’t think it’s the defining factor, however, I think that follow-up and human connection is way more important than some people think. It’s a long game, the years of doing studio visits with artists to remain engaged is important and part of the work. I think sometimes there is this mental barrier about networking or being opportunistic, but for me I was in my studio making work for a few years after grad school and no one was seeing. How can I be proactive and how can I broaden my community and expand and find my people?

The intentional thank you follow-up is vital. This is all part of understanding this industry. Thinking about your work, I love the ‘retro edge’ that I see in many of your paintings, that edgy landscape that invokes a past. What’s that specific reference point for you?

WH: I think naturally that kind of 80s and 90s early digital aesthetic is so rooted in the back of my brain. We had one computer growing up where we played one game: there was only one game. My brother and I had the original Nintendo, we never got beyond that except for Gameboy, and I think that early Nintendo where your options are limited, both aesthetically and formally, you are defined by this X and Y axis. Those limited parameters through that very analog technology define how I process space throughout my work. I wasn’t really conscious of it, but I recognize how I also navigate space that way; a lot of times it’s not necessarily a depth that goes beyond whatever the forward dimension is; I feel like my painting is based on a very rudimentary X and Y grid.

The word that comes to mind besides ‘retro’ is ‘nostalgia,’ it really comes across. You take us somewhere.

WH: Well, I am not overtly thinking about an 80s reference or 90s reference, but I was born in 1985, so I recognize those connections. A few years ago, I really had to let go of what I wanted the work to be, and instead let the work direct me. I recognized that I needed to have more trust and confidence and let go of expectations of what the work needed to be or wanted to be, then that analog pre-digital-ish aesthetic just naturally came out.

Indeed, it’s a bombardment of every day in this current digital realm. This idea about things that we resist, is there anything you feel you are resisting in your current work?

WH: Once I am in a zone or discover a new pattern or a new process, even if it's minor, once I feel that I have figured that out, it’s actually time to move on. I want to say that the work [that I presented] at Geary is a zone that I want to stay in for a little bit longer. I never sketch out any of the work in advance, every work is, ideally, a platform and an arena for an experimentation. I am responding and listening to the work in real-time and about what it wants: can I get out of the way so that the work can do its thing? Thus, if there are moments where occasionally I know where I am going or recognize exactly where this thing will be, my interest is done. I do not want to execute anything. It’s a discovery and ideally an exploration in discovery versus an execution. It’s totally valid where other artists' modes are to sketch and execute something, that’s not a critique of anyone else’s practice. I just know for me, if I know what the thing is going to be, then why do it? It does not make sense to me if the answer is already there or somewhat apparent. The whole thing is unraveling what it needs to be.

Will Hutnick, installation images from "Eternal Sunshine", solo exhibition at Pamela Salisbury Gallery (Hudson, NY), April 8 - June 18, 2023. Images courtesy of the artist.

Following-up on this ‘analog’ and ‘retro’ nature of your work, please comment on this idea of the ‘glitch’ in your art.

WH: I gave an artist talk with Laura van Straaten at Geary Contemporary and she was talking about the importance and significance of ‘glitch’ versus other words that have a negative connotation, like a ‘mishap’ or a ‘misfire’ or a ‘defect.’ So ‘glitch’ feels appropriate because of this idea of a hiccup in time. I think glitch also has strong connotations for early digital culture as well as thinking about cassette tapes and CD’s. I think of the static on TV’s and changing radio stations and in-between stations, that static. Maybe with glitch there is an implied technological hiccup or malfunction, I think it’s exciting where, for me, formally a pattern is doing one thing, and then there’s a purposeful interruption and a purposeful hiccup in the pattern or in the composition. I think those moments for me are really important. It’s a way to slow down, both as an artist and hopefully as a viewer, where there is this strong hiccup or jump, and it’s a jump into a different reality. The glitch opens the possibility for new realities.

And thinking back to this comment about queerness and time, there is an interesting connection there. Your work creates a space and expands that space with respect to queerness contextualized, the demand of the digital world, and the glitch that allows for an atemporal reality. What’s your current focus, what’s the thing for you right how?

WH: I am thinking about time, and the notion of condensed and slow time, kind of like stop-motion, taking one frame at a time. I am currently working on painting in pairs, and essentially the same thing, twice. It’s been fun to explore this idea of twinning. I don’t want it to be gimmicky and spot the difference, but even but ideally represent a subtle, different moment in time, maybe one is 30 seconds in front of or behind the other one. With this new work, I’m trying to present the same reality in smaller increments of time.

What are you doing for your heart and soul these days besides your practice?

WH: Family is number one, nothing brings me more joy at the moment than playing with my son Otis and seeing him discover new words and try new things. He is such a funny little guy, and he knows it. It is a wonder to witness and be a part of. That’s a big part of it, being present and trying to carve out as much time as possible to be with family.

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