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The Janet and Walter Sondheim Prize 2010

Posted 7/7/2010

The Sondheim Artscape Prize: 2010 Finalists

Through Aug.1 at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

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Ryan Hackett's "Hyperextension 1 (5/12/2010-6/12/2010)" and "Hyperextension 2 (5/12/2010-6/12/2010)"

Ryan Hackett

Breeze right by Ryan Hackett's two large-scale paintings and spend a wealth of time with his video "Humpback Whale Dislocation System" first. You're not going to ignore the Washington, D.C.-based artist's lovely paintings, you're merely going to allow his time-based piece to calibrate the brain for his still images. That way, it's easier to recognize just how astutely Hackett has honed the ideas he presented as a 2009 Sondheim finalist. He hasn't retreated from the large-scale multimedia works he presented last year; he's simply articulating his ideas with less obviousness or need to please.

And, to Hackett's tremendous credit, he does so by making the work more demanding. "Humpback" isn't only a seamless immersion into his thematic universe, it's compelling proof that the so-called divide separating a "film" viewing context from an "art" context is an artificial construct of the rigid mind. Sitting with "Humpback"--a soundtrack of recordings of whale echolocation paired with video of clouds slowly moving across a pristine blue sky--feels like a familiar environmental installation if you only spend a few minutes with it. The whale sounds fade in and out, and in the darkened screening room with a pair of comfy chairs, the piece could easily feel like a trendy piece of video art installed at a high-end lounge.

"Humpback" runs a whopping 22 and a half minutes, though, and if Hackett merely wanted to create a backdrop for a Miami bar it could have easily been a three-minute loop. The length, and Hackett's exquisite control of its languid pace, has a riveting effect. A few minutes of "Humpback" is easily forgettable; watching the entire 22:30 is transcendent. Although basically a static shot watching things happen, Hackett isn't exploiting real time the way Warhol does in Empire, where the lie of cinematic time compression is deadpanned by staring at a building, turning the ordinary--a light coming on in a window--into the dramatic. Hackett is aiming for a cognitive level, toying with the way the brain puts together what it sees and hears and seeks out a way to assign meaning to their coincidence.

The closest cousin to "Humpback" isn't video art installation but Derek Jarman's 1993 Blue, a movie almost entirely about the intoxicating power of sight that pairs a soundtrack of a life remembered with an unchanging blue screen. Hackett's "Humpback" isn't as emotionally powerful--few things are--but it is equally concerned with how we look, specifically at nature.

And he's asking you to sit and consider two of nature's more patient phenomena, whale songs and cloud drift, and--if you let it--it gets you to rediscover the wonder in them by short-circuiting the usual televisual language that conveys information. It's an ingeniously eloquent use of technology, and, brain duly primed, it makes returning to his ostensibly traditional large-scale paintings--abstracted images of the natural world or, well, nature's own abstractions--feel all the more refreshing. (BM)

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