Photorealist painter uses humor to highlight dilemma of marine debris
February 28, 2013
Above: “Mighty Migration” oil on canvas, 30″ x 40″ © Karen Hackenberg 2011
“I am walking on the Discovery Bay beach outside of Port Townsend WA where I live, swim, and kayak. Collecting colorful plastic cone-shaped tips of washed-up fireworks’ rockets for use in my sculpture, I examine the live pulpy bodies of moon snails in their white shells and the purple velvet “fur” on sand dollars, as well as the stranded plastic bags, the crab shell molts, the squid egg cases, the running shoes, logs, plastic water bottles, shot gun shells, disposable lighters, ropes of bull kelp, nylon ropes, eel grasses, striated stones and glowing agates. I struggle to make sense of this diverse and incongruous debris, and to somehow make peace with its implications.”
– Karen Hackenberg
Artist Karen Hackenberg explores the “tenuous boundary between living nature and human encroachment.” From her studio overlooking Discovery Bay, Washington, Hackenberg takes frequent beach walks that reveal both treasure and tragedy. Since her childhood along the Connecticut coast, Hackenberg has found it difficult to accept the results of our “disposable economy,” with garbage that washes up on beaches becoming so ubiquitous that beachgoers now consider it normal. An early childhood memory of being barred from swimming in the polluted waters of a Connecticut beach sparked what Hackenberg describes as her “lifelong dance of conflicted feelings, swinging from hope to despair, albeit with mischievous humor, about the human condition and our denial of the negative impact we make on the natural world.”
During one of her Discovery Bay beach “treasure” hunts in 2008, Hackenberg reluctantly noticed a Tide detergent bottle tangled in the flotsam. Although she didn’t want to see “this big orange garbagy-looking plastic bottle,” she couldn’t resist making something out of the irony of its existence in such an otherwise natural setting:
Then the familiar shock of humorous ironic angst washes over me; this florescent-orange bottle poignantly declares itself “Tide.” Acting impulsively, and contrary to my desire not to acknowledge this man-made garbage, I prop the container in the tidal zone where the coincidence of a florescent-orange algae bloom or “red tide’ flows out on the ebb of the summer tide. Using the photos of this first encounter, I painted “Red Tide,” a small work in gouache in which the detergent bottle unabashedly claims “natural” rights on this otherwise pristine shore.
Red Tide was the first piece in Hackenberg’s increasingly photorealistic series of paintings in gouache and oil titled Watershed – now numbering more than 30 with no end in sight. As she says, “the trash just keeps surfing in!”
Hackenberg’s monumental and humorous depictions of beach junk make the marine debris crisis more approachable. By “presenting a tongue-in-cheek taxonomy of our new post-consumer creatures of the sea,” Hackenberg gently pushes her viewers to think seriously about the ways in which we use and dispose of plastic, and how it impacts the health and beauty of our ocean environment.
Hackenburg continues to collect and make images from the synthetic junk that washes up along Pacific Northwest shorelines. Pushing her ear to the sand for a close view, she photographs the delightful yet disturbing plastic objects that define modern human culture and consumption. Hackenberg says that her paintings resulting from these photographs “show the beach trash as monolithic in the seascape, and provide a visual metaphor that echoes the hugeness of the problem of ocean pollution proliferation.” She adds, “By lovingly and meticulously crafting “beautiful” photorealist images of these conventionally “ugly” beach cast-offs, I create a provocative visual juxtaposition of form and idea, and give dark witness to the ocean degradation. As gyres of plastic swirl in the Pacific, plastic becomes the new sand.”
Karen Hackenberg is currently working with Marquand Books in Seattle to create a hand-bound book of her Watershed series. For more on Karen’s work, click here.