Butch Hancock: Finding the Unexpected by Caitlin Haskell

Added on by Shona Masarin.

This essay was written in conjunction with Butch Hancock on view at CUE Art Foundation October 18 - December 1, 2007.

"They'll tell you to expect the unexpected

But nobody ever tells you where it's hid." [1]

-       The Flatlanders    

On 25 acres near the Chisos Mountains in remote southwest Texas, Butch Hancock has been building an undulating solar-powered structure out of aluminum cans and concrete. The expanding network of variously proportioned domes and flowing lines reflects their maker's admiration for Antonio Gaudí and Buckminster Fuller, yet this building-dubbed the "Elefante" for its round shape and ashen color-is more than a fanciful tribute to two pioneering designers. It is a home and a working studio, a place where Hancock and his family can both pursue and inhabit an unconventional exploration of form.

For the past 40 years, Hancock, who is best known as an accomplished songwriter and member of the legendary Texas band the Flatlanders, has conceived eccentric experiments like the Elefante to engage his mind and hands while "discovering what the universe is up to and what our place in it might be."[2]Often his experiments have brought to light whimsical aspects of the natural world, for example, the realization that popcorn kernels under magnification exhibit intricate coral-like structures. These serendipitous finds have encouraged Hancock to approach life with an eye for discovery whether at home or on the road, and to hold in regard what others might deem outlandish. As he puts it, "I've always loved the idea of being a guinea pig, especially in something that I might be able to initiate."[3]

As a teenager in Lubbock, Texas, in the late 1960s, Hancock had plenty of time for speculation. West Texas, where he drove a tractor for his father's earth-moving company, provided an expanse of equal parts ground and sky. With no trees or hills to interrupt his field of vision, Hancock found that he could indulge in extended contemplation. "Any idea you had out there," he recalls, "you were kind of stuck with it for awhile."[4]  This landscape, completely void of distractions, offered unique intellectual freedom. It was a place where someone raised in the Baptist Church might come to write lyrics with Buddhist affinity-"The wind knows how we used to be here now"-or reach the profound conclusion, "Babe, you're just a wave, you're not the water."[5]

***

There are any number of approaches a person can follow when learning a creative discipline, and Hancock's diverse exhibition of photography and pen-and-ink drawings at the Cue Art Foundation demonstrates that he is an artist who has tried quite a few. You could attend a program that offers instruction in a particular discipline, as Hancock did to learn architecture. Alternatively, you could study something else-anything else-and apply what you've learned in the extraneous field to your creative practice. We could fairly call the later Hancock's preference.

Although Hancock's music has attracted fans from around the world, we can locate his creative origin in Lubbock's open fields. Butch tells the story of bringing a harmonica to work as a young man so that he could tune his tractor to the key of G and write songs as he crisscrossed the desolate terrain.[6] Just as tractor driving in West Texas presented Hancock with vast emptiness ripe for population with rhythm and verse, it likewise encouraged the development of his visual faculties through an increased sensitivity to optical stimuli and the frequencies at which they occurred. Hancock's earliest film provides a case in point. Thirty Miles from Clarendon to Claude (1975-78) is a stop-motion Super-8 movie, which Hancock filmed from a car window as he drove across uneventful Texas roads. By decreasing the frequency at which he captured frames, Hancock seemed to accelerate the pace at which life passed. The change in speeds revealed new aspects of familiar territory. As his viewer traveled at rates well beyond those of an automobile, "telephone poles would start to wiggle along the side of the road... [and] suddenly the utility poles became an organism."[7]

The transformation of ubiquitous roadside poles into magical, quasi-organic forms approximates the conversion that occurs in Hancock's drawings. An image like Tooth House (1977), for example, began with the haphazard placement of a dozen twisting pen strokes on a 14-by-17-inch page. Working with black Bic ballpoint pen on low-grade paper, Hancock created this image by using "an unknown source," which is to say, the loosely directed movement of his hand across the page. "When I'm drawing," Hancock explains, "a lot of time it's the paper that's doing the drawing." [8] Acknowledging that all of his works on paper are "curvilinear, set in landscapes and architectural in nature," Hancock allows a page to evolve without overdetermining its final state. Instead, he follows his conviction that "the job of the artist is not to get in the way of the art," and allows the nonrational energy that guided the direction of his hand to come through in the finished product.[9] External material sources, like coffee spilled on a notebook page, are also permitted to assert their presence compositionally and might be found defining a section of sky or a patch of vegetation. Hancock comes to terms with his authorial remove by acknowledging that, "these things are definitely an enigma to me, but they're a reality to me as well."[10]    

Despite the pictorial clarity of Hancock's drawings, his works are seldom based on photographs. Nevertheless, photography plays a large part in determining how Hancock's drawings look. His facility for building two-dimensional forms in black and white derives primarily from his experience working in a darkroom. Having been employed by an architectural photographer in San Francisco for a year in his early 20s (Hancock's last steady paycheck) he found that his darkroom skills could translate into another visual language. Drawing forced him to learn more fully the middle tones between deep black and bright white; but even recent works in ink on paper like Flight of Garuda (2004) began by filling in the sky with rich black. As forms begin to "pop" and define the composition, Hancock respects the inclinations of the paper and ink and treats his page as though it contained a photographic impression in need of development. Not surprisingly, there appears to have been some cross-pollination of drafting techniques back into Hancock's photography in images like Dawg at Leap (1970), a picture taken one year after Hancock began his first series of drawings. Here the lean musculature of the dog's legs possesses the bulging contours and reflective sheen of Hancock's imaginary architecture.

Whether in the field of music or two- and three-dimensional design, Butch Hancock's whimsical experiments have taught him a thing or two about the realities of form. He can build curvilinear walls with recourse to instinct alone, and he can compose a satisfying photograph instantaneously while looking out a car window in Ukraine or Nepal. Other artists may possess these skills, but Hancock distinguishes himself by his unconventional cross-disciplinary methodology. Leery of convention, Hancock deliberately disregards the practices he learned about making buildings in architectural school and applies these lessons instead to songwriting and drawing. "If you want to know about architecture," he explains, "go study insects. If you want to know about building, or what constitutes structure, go study trees, go study baseball..." As for architects: "...build the roof first, just to see if [you] can."[11]

Hancock's openness to experimentation has illuminated new pathways for creativity, which may always have been available to artists, but which have been obscured by practitioners too familiar with the rules of their craft. Looking at Hancock's varied production, we learn that "trends come from different places than trend setters" and that the unexpected lies within our reach.[12] We may not know precisely where the unexpected can be found, but the interplay of Hancock's music, film, photography, architecture and drawings offers a glimpse of where it could be hiding.

Caitlin Haskell lives in Austin, Texas, where she is a doctoral student in art history at the University of Texas at Austin and a collaborator at the nonprofit contemporary-art initiative Fluent~Collaborative. A native of Exeter, N.H., Caitlin holds a B.A. from Davidson College, where she studied art history and Russian.

[1] The Flatlanders (Butch Hancock, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Joe Ely), "I Thought the Wreck was Over," Now Again, New West Records, 2002.

[2] Butch Hancock quoted in "Chris Oglesby Interviews Butch Hancock," (June 27, 2002), http://www.virtualubbock.com/intButchHancock.html.

[3] Butch Hancock quoted in Jason Gross, "Butch Hancock Interview," (June, 2000) http://www.furious.com/Perfect/butchhancock.html

[4] Butch Hancock quoted in "Chris Oglesby Interviews Butch Hancock." Tense shifted from original for clarity.

[5] The Flatlanders, "Now It's Now Again," Now Again, New West Records, 2002 and Butch Hancock, "Just a Wave," 1988.

[6] See "Chris Oglesby Interviews Butch Hancock"and Dave McKenna, "The Flatlanders: Lubbock Stops Here," The Washington Post March 11, 2000, Style section, C 05.

[7] Butch Hancock quoted in "Chris Oglesby Interviews Butch Hancock."

[8] Butch Hancock in conversation with the author, September 6, 2007.

[9] Butch Hancock in conversation with the author, September 6, 2007.

[10] Butch Hancock in conversation with the author, September 6, 2007.

[11] Butch Hancock in conversation with the author, September 6, 2007.

[12] Butch Hancock quoted in Gross, "Butch Hancock Interview."