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Karen Hackenberg



WAT eRS heD Watershed

Karen Hackenberg

Paper Hammer, Seattle

We hope you enjoy this digital version of the limited edition hand-made book. For more information about the original, visit

Fish Farm

On the Beach

Karen Hackenberg’s Post-Pop Paintings with Green Heart Jake Seniuk


here is a slow-burn, pre-apocalyptic quality to Karen Hackenberg’s Watershed paintings that calls to mind the fatalistic mood of On the Beach, Nevil Shute’s 1957 doomsday novel about Australians helplessly awaiting the advance of radioactivity spreading from the northern nations who have annihilated one another in nuclear war. Hackenberg paints the tidelands of Puget Sound near her home in Port Townsend, Washington—horizontal marine scapes of deep space seen from a crab’s-eye view in her ongoing series currently numbering thirty paintings. First in intimate gouaches, then in larger oils, she presents the castaways she’s discovered amid the flotsam that washes ashore as the collateral damage of human progress. Found-object art draws its meanings from context and mode of presentation, its anointment by an artist as aesthetically worthy, and, perhaps later, by recognition from critics and the public. In the wake of Pop Art’s celebration of the banal, Hackenberg’s deft rendering of product design takes on a mock documentary tone. Strategically posing her subjects where they offer themselves on the incoming tide, she imbues these photogenic shorelines with an air of nostalgia for their threatened natural legacy. Her nose-to-the-ground perspective, sure draftsmanship, and crisp brushwork grows to monumental stature this humble lot of lost and discarded consumer detritus, glimpsed in a rarefied atmosphere pregnant with the anticipation of a rising tide of similar waste to follow. In Mighty Migration (page 2) a plastic pterodactyl action figure has alighted on the pebbly strand as if it had just swept in from some dino-Disney theme park. With its mighty skin wings outstretched triumphantly over a jumble of barnacles that—from this close-up—read as a field of boulders, the creature looms gargantuan against the open horizon.


Carl Jung attributed Japan’s mid-century cinematic penchant for freakish prehistoric colossi, intent on ravaging Tokyo, to subconscious, post-traumatic reactions precipitated by Hiroshima hellfire and the island nation’s rapid industrialization. Japan’s defeated traditional culture had been transformed and swept into the burgeoning global marketplace. The monsters created by radioactive mutation appeared from the distant past to exact revenge for a nature now subjugated to the incessant growth of industrialization. It is no small irony that in Hackenberg’s contemporary update of the impact of rising Asian capitalism “China” is spelled out on the creature’s wing in welted scarification letters, stamped on this plastic plaything at one of the million factories in that awakening industrial behemoth. A cross between the über-lizard Godzilla and the sun-blotting, giant pterosaur Rodan, who rampaged moviegoers’ imaginations during Shute’s era of Cold War paranoia, Hackenberg’s orange Day-Glo mutant signifies the revolt of a distressed natural world. Taking on the role of “lookout” on the beach, Hackenberg finds herself treading “a tenuous boundary between living nature and human encroachment.” The faux idolatry she bestows upon these humble plastic ready-mades emphasizes their dumb threat to the fragile natural world they have invaded. In Red Tide (page 19), the seminal gouache of the Watershed series, a washed-up jug that once held liquid laundry soap is poised like an abstract sculpture against the backdrop of a lovely bay. With a “Madmen”-like twist of her own, the artist reinterprets the detergent’s marketing strategy, which branded it “Tide” to conjure images of nature and ecological purity in the consumer’s mind. In Hackenberg’s subtly foreboding tone the association is to the retreating tide, which here is ringed by the red scum that is the scourge of shellfish eaters.


The onslaught of slow-choking byproducts of carbon-based industry is the underlying theme in Amphibious Landing (page 8). Assault rifle at the ready, a khaki-clad and helmeted homunculus advances the proliferation of plastics on the Puget shore with gunboat diplomacy. In Shell Shock (page 11) a mock grenade takes center stage. Its bulbous black silhouette recalls a voluptuous Stone Age Venus, here to warn us about live munitions left behind from wars and insurrections as well as the more insidious impact of plastics, whose effect is measured in centuries of slow decay, not the sudden flash of an explosion. Despite the sober light she shines on ecological distress, Hackenberg’s paintings are far from humorless and not without affection for the beings that once handled these contemporary artifacts she’s memorialized. Alluding to the choking hazard presented to marine life by lost balls adrift in the oceans, Into the Belly of the Whale (page 15) presents a troika that looks like a thuggish ensemble of class insignia. At the group’s forefront an errant golf ball from the country club accosts the viewer like a pugnacious “made man” with a pockmarked face of menace. He’s tightly flanked and backed by a larger whiffle ball from a suburban lawn and an even larger hardball from a city sandlot. The former’s perforated surface bristles with the blank glower of a hockey-masked, B-flick slasher; the latter’s scuffed and battered seams ooze like bruised sutures in the rawhide shell, attesting to a rough-and-tumble past. A human presence lingers on in the toe indentations on an unmatched pair of leftfooted flip-flops that are dubbed Sole Survivors (page 17). Did one wriggle free from a departing swimmer’s rolled-up towel and the other float to the surface, released by currents, from the drowned foot of a tsunami casualty? Planted on the beach heel first and upright, they rise from the rocky shore in brilliant sunlight like twin towers, rekindled metaphors and monuments to loss.


Amphibious Landing

In a more hopeful pairing, two ears of corn rise from the beach as possible survivors in Hackenberg’s existential “watershed.” They are the lone non-synthetic inhabitants in this painterly ecology of symbols. The work’s title, The Great Pacific Corn Patch (page 23), refers to the islands of plastic glut now massing in the oceans. Like that rising tide of petroleum products, genetically modified foods, too, assault biodiversity. With their withered silken frond tips reaching toward the heavens, these “ears” bid us listen to nature gasping, both on land and sea. Phantom spirits from the organic past, they seem poised to peel away their shriveled husks and reveal essential truths of survival before it is too late. The last work completed in the series, Stranded Vessel (cover), turns the venerable ship-in-a-bottle motif inside out. Rather than encapsulating a billow-sailed schooner, the super-sized green soda flask Hackenberg has balanced on a beach boulder brims with the artist’s themes and sentiments dissolved in an aspic of Nordic light. It is the culminating item in her portfolio of mock archeological debris. The ethereal glow of the horizon illuminates the empty space within, yet draws the spirit out towards eternal nature. At the same time full and empty this “Big Gulp” is an exhibit case with a missing specimen. Discovered in the distant future, it may be all that’s left of our vanished race.


Shell Shock


Talking Rain


Into the Belly of the Whale


Sole Survivors


Red Tide


Power King II


The Great Pacific Corn Patch


Trash Dance

Dark Witness Karen Hackenberg


ne autumn day in late 1960s Connecticut, my parents took me to visit our friends at their Groton Long Point beach house. Having grown up as an avid beach baby on Long Island Sound, the first thing I wanted to do was “Go swimming!” But posted on a rusty and battered chain-link fence along the seawall was a sign that read “Beach Closed, No Swimming, Polluted Water.” The sign mystified me at my young age, and I had a hard time grasping its meaning. How could a beach be closed? What did “polluted” mean? When my father explained to me that “dirty” water was flowing into the ocean, I was horrified. I wrote about this experience a few years later in a story for my seventh grade English class, inflecting my tale with a gentle irony that grew to shape the tone of my mature work as an artist. Writing this story ushered me into a lifelong dance of conflicted feelings, albeit with mischievous humor, about the human condition and our denial of the negative impacts we wreak upon the natural world. Skip to the summer of 2008, fast-forwarding through four decades of building my foundation as a painter: attending art school in Rhode Island and then moving to the San Francisco Bay Area where I honed my environmental awareness while working in textile design and architecture. Now I’m walking on the beach at Discovery Bay, near Port Townsend, Washington, where I live, swim, and kayak. As I collect the brightly colored, cone-shaped plastic tips of tide-delivered bottle rockets destined for inclusion in my sculptures, I notice the pulpy bodies of moon snails at home in their white shells, the sand dollars mantled with purple velvet “fur,” the crab shell molts and squid egg cases, the serpentine eel grasses, the slimy ropes of bull kelp, the striated stones, and the glowing agates. Then there are the stranded plastic bags, the mismatched running shoes, the foggy plastic water bottles, the throw-away lighters, the frayed lengths of nylon rope, the spent shotgun shells. I struggle to make sense of this diverse and incongruous debris and to somehow reconcile myself with its implications. 25

Amphorae ca. 2010

I glance at a bright orange detergent bottle but walk on, pondering how this particular vessel has come to rest against the clay bluff amid a jumble of organic flotsam. Why do I at first pass by this fluorescent eyesore, which poignantly declares itself to be the “Tide,” in favor of the “pretty” little pyrotechnic cones? I’m not really wanting to see this abandoned “empty,” but as I turn to reconsider its battered, smirking countenance, a familiar taste of ironic angst sticks in my craw and stops me in my tracks. Acting impulsively and against my instinct to not acknowledge this refuse of convenience, I prop up the container in the tidal zone where, by timely coincidence, a shimmering orange algae bloom, or “red tide,” is outflowing. Drawing on the photos of this first encounter, I painted Red Tide, a small gouache in which this jettisoned soap container unabashedly claims “natural” rights on an otherwise pristine shoreline. It is the first piece in the series titled Watershed, my photorealist paintings in both gouache and oil that now number more than thirty with no end in sight; the trash just keeps bobbing in on the surf. As gyres of garbage swirl in the Pacific Ocean and more trash washes ashore to churn against the rocky Washington coast, plastic is becoming the new sand. I continue to scout for this synthetic bounty borne in on the waves from far and near. With one ear to the sand for a close-up view, I pose and photograph the flotsam where it lands on the beach. The paintings, based on my photographs, present the beach trash as monolithic in the seascape and provide a visual metaphor that hints at the magnitude of ocean pollution. Striving for a light-hearted touch while holding on to a subversive tone towards the problem of habitat destruction, I present a tongue-in-cheek taxonomy of our new synthetic post-consumer “creatures of the sea” that now rise to take the place of native marine species. By lovingly and meticulously crafting “beautiful” images of conventionally “ugly” beach cast-offs, I hope to create provocative juxtapositions of form and idea that give dark witness to a looming global disaster. 27

Karen Hackenberg Born in New Jersey in 1955 and raised in rural Connecticut, Karen Hackenberg developed her first connections to the natural world in the pastures, orchards, wooded hills, and beaches along Long Island Sound. She earned her BFA in painting from the Rhode Island School of Design and, upon graduating in 1978, migrated west to San Francisco. In her decade and a half living by the San Francisco Bay, she worked in architecture and ecological textile design, honed her environmental values, and educated her eye to the juxtaposition of man-made shapes and natural forms. In 1992 she migrated once again, this time to the Pacific Northwest, where her life experiences came full circle. There on the shores of Discovery Bay, near Port Townsend, Washington, where she lives to this day, she was again surrounded by an ever-present natural landscape. Her past experiences heightened her awareness of this naturally blessed region’s struggle to find balance between its increasing population and development and its preservation of wild places. Hackenberg has exhibited extensively in museums and galleries around the Northwest and across the nation, most recently in the ocean-themed exhibition Beneath the Surface: Rediscovering a World Worth Conserving at the American Association for the Advancement of Science headquarters in Washington, DC. Her green sensibility has been prized by many private collectors and has earned a place in numerous permanent public collections including the New York State Museum (Albany, New York), Providence Medical Center (Everett, Washington), and the Bainbridge Island Museum of Art (Washington). Her work was recently selected for Washington’s State Art Collection and she was granted an Artist Trust (Seattle) GAP award to turn her Watershed series into this bound book.


Water Shed. Installed 2010, photographed, 2013. Webster Woods sculpture park, Port Angeles Fine Arts Center, Washington. A shed of water bottles, this piece was built from the salvaged aluminum framing of a burned-out greenhouse and recycled PETE water bottles suspended from copper wires for the roof and sides.

Checklist Cover: Stranded Vessel, oil on canvas, 24 × 36 inches, 2012 Frontispiece: Mighty Migration, oil on canvas, 30 × 40 inches, 2011 Fish Farm, gouache on paper, overall size 12½ × 15 inches; image size 8 × 11 inches, 2011 Amphibious Landing, gouache on paper, overall size 10 × 11 inches; image size 5½ × 7 inches, 2012 Shell Shock, gouache on paper, overall size 10 × 11 inches; image size 5½ × 7 inches, 2009 Talking Rain, gouache on paper, overall size 10 × 11 inches; image size 5½ × 7 inches, 2009 Into the Belly of the Whale, gouache on paper, overall size 12½ × 15 inches; image size 8 × 11 inches, 2012 Sole Survivors, gouache on paper, overall size 12½ × 14 inches; image size 8 × 10 inches, 2010 Red Tide, gouache on paper, overall size 10 × 11 inches; image size 5½ × 7 inches, 2009 Power King II, oil on canvas, 30 × 40 inches, 2011 The Great Pacific Corn Patch, gouache on paper, overall size 12½ × 15 inches; image size 8 × 11 inches, 2011 Trash Dance, gouache on paper, overall size 12½ × 14 inches; image size 8 × 10 inches, 2010 Amphorae ca. 2010, oil on canvas, 24 × 48 inches, 2011


My heartfelt thanks to my husband and fellow artist Michael Felber, and to Ed Marquand, Jake Seniuk, Esther Luttikhuizen, Jeanie Murphy, Marquand Books, and iocolor for their invaluable expertise in making this book. This book is funded in part by a 2011 Grants for Artist Projects (GAP) award from Artist Trust, Seattle

Copyright © 2013 Karen Hackenberg “On the Beach” copyright © 2013 Jake Seniuk All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage or retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher. Amphorae ca. 2010, Mighty Migration, Power King II, and Stranded Vessel photographed by Craig Wester Published by Paper Hammer, Seattle Produced by Marquand Books, Inc., Seattle Designed by Ed Marquand and Ryan Polich Edited by Brielyn Flones Proofread by Melissa Duffes Typeset in Joanna by Brielyn Flones Color management by iocolor Printed in Seattle by Marquand Books, Inc. Bound in Tieton, Washington, by Paper Hammer Studios Digital prepress for Issuu by Snow Dowd for Karen Hackenberg with gratitude for permission from Marquand Books, Inc. 2014 All rights reserved per original edition



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Watershed | Karen Hackenberg  

A handmade artist book featuring the paintings of northwest artist Karen Hackenberg. Original book published by Paper Hammer, Seattle. Pro...