Peter Hutchinson stands in his studio flipping through photos from past projects. He turns a page, and there he is — tiptoeing around the caldera of a volcano, dropping crumbs of Wonder Bread. Landscapes, moonscapes, calabashes strung together and submerged in Provincetown Harbor. Excerpts from a diary framed in place of a picture. Abundant, colorful collages assembled from photos of flowers the artist planted in his garden.
Hutchinson has been living in the quiet honeycomb of Provincetown’s back streets for the past 55 years. He was a leading proponent of the international movements of land art and narrative art that took hold in the 1960s and ‘70s.. His work spans seven decades and has left traces in 20th-century art movements including Minimalism, Abstract Expressionism, and conceptualism.
Hutchinson was born in London in 1930. In “Science Fiction and Art,” a 1981 essay from the book Dissolving Clouds: The Writings of Peter Hutchinson (Provincetown Arts Press), he wrote about his upbringing: “Coming from a broken and impoverished family, being thrust from a boarding school into the army and then out on my own with no idea of how to make a living, I felt an alien in my own country. Yet this feeling suited me, or I used it to explain my impatience with the present and my wish to look beyond. In art I was allowed to look beyond, to be impractical and to not be judged by ordinary standards.”
In 1960, Hutchinson received a B.F.A. in painting from the University of Illinois and moved to New York, where he worked as a shorthand typist for the United Nations and painted at night with Robert Rauschenberg and others.
In 1969, Hutchinson and the conceptual artist Dennis Oppenheim had a two-man show called “Ocean Projects” at the Museum of Modern Art. Hutchinson’s work included underwater photos of threaded calabashes he had submerged in Provincetown Harbor, having spent summers here exploring the town’s art scene. A collage of the threaded calabashes, which look like glowing orbs, is now displayed above the couch in his studio.
In 1970, he traveled to Mexico to see Parícutin, the cinder cone volcano that erupted from a cornfield in 1943. The Parícutin Project that ensued was a shapeshifting moment in modern art and “an assertion of the organic in the most arid context imaginable,” wrote the New York Times art critic Brian O’Doherty.
For the project, Hutchinson hauled 450 pounds of breadcrumbs up the volcano and spread them along the inner rim. Mold formed and the crumbs changed color.
“Refuting the sterility of extreme environments is a theme in Hutchinson’s work,” wrote O’Doherty. “Compared to the vast constructions and removals of tons of material by his colleagues, the volcano’s assistance is solicited in the politest way with minimal interference, a quality very rare in American art, a kind of good breeding, a courtesy that marks Hutchinson’s subsequent transactions with nature.”
Hutchinson bought his tiny white house on a quarter acre at the end of Holway Avenue for $17,000 in 1975. “There are certain times in nature where you get lucky if you hit it right,” he says, “but you have to act.”
Now, at age 93, Hutchinson, who is represented by Gaa Gallery, is still making art about nature in his Provincetown studio. His recent collage Blue Sky has little negative space, leaving the fullness of nature on display. The picture plane overflows with flowers from Hutchinson’s garden and flapping seagulls on the shore, which create bilateral symmetry — an almost whimsical nod to traditional notions of beauty. White candytuft, purple phlox, magenta lilies, and a daffodil pop out of their surroundings in a bouquet of color.
The flowers are in conversation with each other, as if engaged in their own pleasant town gossip. All of nature faces us, the viewer, as though we are the ones being seen on the path.
In his piece Landscapes, Hutchinson overlays photos with drawings, and certain drawings switch into photos. It’s a winter collage of a mountain in shadow and branches backlit by the sun. Cirrus clouds morph into snow on mountainsides across the upper portion. As much as Hutchinson may plant, cut, draw, and arrange, nature’s abundance is impossible to pin down. Through collage, Hutchinson is able to sort through the plenty.
In Landscapes and Lilies, Hutchinson’s note at the bottom clarifies all the images we’re seeing: “Mountains in Switzerland with lilies from my garden in Provincetown.”
Orange lilies swoon and play off the cool blue slopes above; yellow carnations are tucked under a patch of wind-beaten phragmites; purple pansies bask in a valley below snow-covered mountains. At first glance, the mountain’s slope resembles a crashing wave. No matter if these are out of place: they are assembled like a showcase — a highlight reel from Hutchinson’s adventures.
The artist has a knack for framing nature’s intricacies. Hutchinson is activated by nature’s beauty and is doing something to it. He is no innocent bystander. But he lives with the knowledge that his own individuality plays second fiddle to the physical properties of the world around him.
“Our much prized individuality may be the least important thing about us,” he wrote in his 1968 essay, “The Future,” included in Dissolving Clouds. “We shall continue to exist as light rays, as part of the earth, as plant, animal and human in the future.”