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Interview: Karen Hackenberg on Art and Ecology in America Today

Arctic Thirst, 2014, gouache on paper, 10.25” x 14.5”, from the Watershed Series

Currently working in Port Townsend, Washington, the artist Karen Hackenberg talks to us about her recent trip to London, environmental concerns in the age of Trump, and her latest work.

Between painting and traveling, it is possible to find Hackenberg combing the beaches of Discovery Bay. Not looking for shells or natural forms, she is most interested in the rubbish, the objects we purposefully ignore and discard. Taking them back to her studio, the collected debris is monumentalized in her large scale oil paintings. By placing the familiar and disposable in new contexts, the viewer is led to consider the cost of consumer culture on our environment. Imbued with humour, the work avoids the didactic tone of many politically engaged artworks. Plastic dinosaurs jostle with toy soldiers, and the unexpected word play of the titles encourages us to delve back into the paintings.

Fossil Feud, 2016, oil on canvas, 23.5” x 29.5”, from the History Painting Series, photograph by Ken Wagner

Currently, I only paint images that feature manmade trash found in the tidal areas of coastal beaches. I’ve found various toy dinosaurs tangled in the seaweed, and they’ve become part of my visual vocabulary. Through free-association, and by making a link between “fossil fuels” and “dinosaur fossils,” I use the toy dinosaur as a stand-in for more serious concerns about extinctions resulting from obsolete, dinosaur-like ways of thinking and humankind’s collective use of its self-serving reptilian brain. In Fossil Feud, I pair a dinosaur with a bottle that once contained fossil-based petroleum that is combatively defended by a pirate figurine—an allegory for our current ongoing struggle to embrace a future in clean energy while at the same time battling old guard thinking that clings to obsolete dirty energy paradigms.

Though Hackenberg has previously stated she is ‘not an environmental activist in the strictest sense of the word’, her art is engaged with the wider dialogue on environmental issues. With the rejection of the Paris climate deal making world news, we asked if the Trump administration had changed her outlook or approach towards her work.

I try to let my distress with current affairs filter down into my subconscious, to bubble up transformed into new, unexpected images that reflect our times. As an American living in a country at war with itself, staying grounded and centered is now a more difficult task. Yet my process continues as before, arranging small dramas-on-the-beach with the manmade trash I find there, following my intuition and sense of humor to capture surprising, often poignant, visual narratives that unfold before me. It is through this sort of therapeutic sand-play that I compose the photos that result in my paintings, highlighting the oblivious and destructive foibles of humankind, stories set in the context of our beautiful yet deteriorating natural world.

We highly recommend her essay The Unshakeable Habit of Noticing, in which Hackenberg talks in further depth on the environment and ecology.

I often display my work outside of traditional gallery spaces in projects that link science, art, education, and the natural world, combining a set of interests that brings in a wide range of people who might not be inclined to visit a gallery or museum. For my Welcome to the Plastisphere project, I lead a collaborative team of artists and volunteers to create, a site responsive installation offering a beautiful yet disturbing view of imagined sea life gone astray within the magnitude of plastics in the marine environment. Welcome to the Plastisphere will next be installed in the offices of Washington State Department of Ecology’s LEED® Silver headquarters in Olympia, WA.

Welcome to the Plastisphere, detail, from the Plastisphere Project

The project is a foray into sculptural forms, though numerous mediums play a role in her creative process. The sketchbook pages available online show the journey from initial photographs, to totemic sculptures and large scale paintings. In a departure from the oil and gouache medium for which Hackenberg is known, her latest series, Frutti di Mare (Seafood), is composed of large-scale drawings.

It feels natural to me to move between mediums, and my success with each material is mostly a matter of embracing its particular expressive quality. I have loved to draw since I was a child, and focused largely on drawing during my early art education. I still enjoy the tactile feeling of mark-making on paper with graphite, charcoal, and colored pencil. My drawings usually are works unto themselves, not preliminary sketches for paintings (I alter my digital photographs to work out preliminary ideas for my paintings). I am also equally comfortable working with oil on canvas and gouache on paper, and work in three dimensions to make found object sculpture and installations. Frutti di Mare is a drawing series in its own right, though I designed them to be translated into hand-pulled stone lithographs during my residency at Tamarind Institute, Albuquerque, NM, this fall.

You can keep up to date with Hackenberg’s latest residencies and projects via her website. There is also a fantastic selection of her artworks to browse.

For those travelling to the Northeast U.S. this summer, you can see my paintings in the greater Boston area at Clark Gallery, Lincoln, MA, through July 29. My work will also be at Patricia Rovzar Gallery in Seattle, WA, later this year.

For those of us not traveling this summer, we asked if she had any favourite exhibitions from her recent visit to London. Considering that Hackenberg’s oil paintings are often described as ‘post-Pop’, it shouldn’t have been a surprise that the exhibition The American Dream; pop to the present at The British Museum particularly caught her attention.

As an American artist very familiar with the pop artists included in this show of hand-pulled original prints, I was enriched by the opportunity to view the works from a British perspective in a venue physically distant and somewhat culturally removed from the US. I was very impressed by Stephen Coppel’s curation, and the stunning installation and accompanying historical information that provided context.

Our thanks to Karen Hackenberg for permission to reproduce her images here. Copyright for all images used in this article are held by Karen Hackenberg.

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