Imagining Water, #9: Pop Sea Art

The ninth in a year-long series on artists of all genres who are making the topic of water a focus of their work and on the growing number of exhibitions, performances and publications that are popping up in museums, galleries and public spaces around the world with water as a theme.

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Pop Art emerged as a movement in the mid-1950s in England and the United States in response to the growing consumerism, mass media and mass production that followed the austerity of World War II. Artists like Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns and Claes Oldenburg appropriated everyday objects found on/in supermarket shelves, television, comic books, cartoons, magazines and advertising – such as Campbell’s soup cans, Coke bottles, Brillo soap pads and hamburgers – which had come to represent popular culture. Using the vivid primary colors and bold text found in advertising as well as a wicked sense of humor, they created paintings, prints and sculptures that mirrored the iconography and obsessions of daily life.

Karen Hackenberg, a Rhode Island School of Design-trained painter now living in Port Townsend, near Discovery Bay on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state, has developed a new version of Pop Art that is a response to a cultural obsession plaguing today’s world: plastic in its myriad forms – product packaging, grocery bags, water bottles, toys, toothbrushes, straws, plates and cups, and thousands of other everyday objects. What Hackenberg sees as she walks along the Discovery Bay shoreline is the result of that obsession – an unending tide of cast-off plastic debris, which is washing onto the beach, impacting the health of the oceans and becoming what she calls “the new sand.”

In the same way that Pop artists of the 1950s and 1960s created images of cultural icons that were both visually seductive and culturally relevant, Hackenberg too beautifies and glorifies her cast-off, found objects by placing them in the forefront of her paintings as towering monuments along a pleasing, placid sea. She credits Claes Oldenburg’s oversized sculptures of iconic objects set in landscapes as her inspiration for the compositions of the “beach trash dramas” in her on-going Watershed series. The viewer’s perspective in all of these paintings is situated below the horizon as if one is lying flat on the sand looking up at the objects.

Hackenberg_"Shades of Green; Amphorae ca. 2012"_Oil on canvas_24 x 48"_2012.jpg
Karen Hackenberg, “Shades of Green; Amphorae, ca. 2012,” 24” x 48,” oil on canvas, 2012. Courtesy of Clark Gallery, Lincoln, MA

When I asked Hackenberg which landscape artists have informed the light-filled, color saturated, seascape portions of her paintings, she acknowledged having taken inspiration from the dramatic, iconic landscapes of the Hudson River School of artists such as Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Cole, the New York School landscapes of Gretna Campbell and Paul Resika, the mystical seascapes of Rockwell Kent, and the ironic landscape paintings of Ed Ruscha, which combine marketing graphics with images of nature. Hackenberg’s choice to combine the Pop Art treatment of her oversized plastic objects with seascapes that are referencing traditional landscape painters results in a sense of displacement, an angst suggesting that something is quite wrong in this universe.

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Rockwell Kent (1882 – 1971), “Afternoon on the Sea, Monhegan, 1907, oil on canvas, 34” x 44”, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Kent’s color-saturated seascapes inspired Hackenberg’s paintings.

Hackenberg is a constant scavenger of sea relics, a beach anthropologist and a keen observer of the “ironic absurdities in the ways we humans often regard the natural world as merely the resource for our self-gratifying consumer habits, while we ignore the destruction of life and beauty in our oblivious rush to purchase the next big thing.” A number of her paintings include images of plastic action figures, toy soldiers and dinosaurs that she found among the seaweed. Placed prominently in the foreground atop stones and other debris, they replace the starfish, crabs and sand dollars usually found on the beach and become an ominous reference to the destruction and extinction of marine life that is occurring at a rapid pace. In the painting Amphibious Landing, a lone green plastic marine patrols a seemingly peaceful shoreline. Is he guarding our way of life or entering a new battle for survival?

Hackenberg_Amphibious Landing_gouache on paper_5.5"x7"_2012.jpg
Karen Hackenberg, “Amphibious Landing,” Gouache on Paper, 5.5” x 7,” 2012. Courtesy of Paper Hammer, Seattle, WA

Hackenberg’s discovery of debris from the 2011 Japanese tsunami, whose waves reached as far as the Pacific shores of our own country, led her to develop a series of paintings that she calls, Ukiyo-e (The Floating World). In contrast to the Watershed paintings in which her plastic objects are rooted monumentally on the beach, the Floating World landscapes depict, as she says, “shards of plastic floating in the atmosphere above the ocean, obscuring the natural beauty of the view beyond and referencing the everyday tsunami of plastic trash.”

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Karen Hackenberg, “Toss Up,” Oil on Wood Panel, 45″ x 36,” 2017. Courtesy of Patricia Rovzar Gallery.

Many contemporary artists around the world have taken on the subject of the billions of pieces of plastic that are polluting our oceans, contaminating our water supplies and becoming toxic food for sea animals, but Karen Hackenberg is one of the few who has shined a light on our collective addiction to plastic for its inherent beauty, for its “Pop Art” value. She calls it, almost fondly, “our trash, our little shiny, beautiful plastic throwaways,” with an emphasis on the word “our.”

(Top image: Karen Hackenberg, “Flood Tide,” oil on canvas, 30” x 40,” 2018. Courtesy of Patricia Rovzar Gallery.)

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Susan Hoffman Fishman is a painter, public artist, writer, and educator whose work has been exhibited in numerous museums and galleries throughout the U.S. Her latest bodies of work focus on the threat of rising tides caused by climate change, the trillions of pieces of plastic in our oceans and the wars that are predicted to occur in the future over access to clean water. She is also the co-creator of two interactive public art projects: The Wave, which addresses our mutual need for and interdependence on water and Home, which calls attention to homelessness and the lack of affordable housing in our cities and towns.

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