LARGO — The latex balloon sculptures hover in a room at The Gallery at Creative Pinellas, filling the cavernous space. In another space in the building, large-scale paintings on unstretched canvases layered with hand-written text beckon, while smaller colorful paintings fill the rest of the rooms.
These comprise “Darkmatter,” a showcase of St. Petersburg-based multidisciplinary artist Jason Hackenwerth’s work. It also includes a retrospective of 50 drawings and photographs from Hackenwerth’s exhibitions over the past 20 years. The gallery’s large space gave Hackenwerth his first opportunity to show the breadth of his artistic practice.
Titled “Darkmatter,” the same name as the exhibition, the site-specific sculptures composed of 20,000 latex balloons were once joined together and then dramatically separated to become two.
More than just mind-bending mathematical feats, they have a conceptual meaning. The sculptures are a commentary on fractured society and the tendency of people to build bubbles around themselves, keeping the dialogue from other bubbles out. The idea for viewing the sculptures, with their inlets and inviting vantages inside and underneath, enforces the concept of people leaving their bubbles to get new perspectives.
The artist works with a team to inflate and construct the sculptures. Drawings of the pieces hang on a wall in the gallery, accompanied by a time-lapse video of the creation process.
Hackenwerth has been making these balloon sculptures for 20 years and has exhibited them all over the world, in prestigious exhibitions at the National Museum of Scotland, for the windows of Bergdorf Goodman in New York City and locally at the Tampa Museum of Art. A retrospective of past installations is told through photographs and more than 50 sketches for the sculptures that span a room in the gallery.
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The practice has become spiritual for Hackenwerth.
“They’re an ephemeral material and they have an inherent message, which is this temporary quality that is almost Zen Buddhist,” he said. “But in addition to that there’s this transformative quality. It’s just one innocuous little banal object, but when it’s joined together with so many thousands more in these ways, you can make really direct statements ... (that are) I think, ubiquitous to everyone’s story ... people can relate to that notion of transcendence.”
Not that each new sculpture is without its challenges, but Hackenwerth sees opportunity in pushing his boundaries.
“Learning that over those years in the sculptures has taught me to accept the weird stuff that happens outside your control and realize that those weird qualities are what make it special.”
He wants people to know that the balloons are biodegradable. He plans to compost the balloons from “Darkmatter” and document how they decompose. Then, he’ll take the dirt and plant a garden and wants to have the plants he grows tested to see if there are traces of latex in them.
Hackenwerth will create another site-specific sculpture for Creative Pinellas’ Arts Annual 2022 exhibition, opening on Nov. 10.
Hackenwerth has a master’s degree in painting from the Savannah College of Art and Design. In 2003, he moved to New York City and spent the next 10 years working and traveling to put the balloon installations across the world. But after getting married, he and his wife left New York City in 2013 and moved to St. Petersburg to start a family and rekindle his painting career at his home studio.
The large-scale paintings included in “Darkmatter” are so monumental that Hackenwerth had to create them outside of his studio on the floor or use a tall ladder and a paint brush on an extension pole.
With “The Only Perfect Place Is in Her Eyes,” Hackenwerth left the canvas outside for the month of February, letting pollen drop on it and rain wash over it and the sun fade it, using the weather to do some of the painting.
Elements of these large paintings get obscured or wiped away. The idea was to maintain the spontaneity that he achieves with smaller works, never to over-manipulate them or let them feel precious.
Hackenwerth wrote a poem to accompany “After the Holiday,” which he said was the impetus for the exhibition. The poem is about his grandparents.
“My grandfather on one hand is the physical world,” he said. “He has all of the structure that exists in our bodies and all of the material realm, and then my grandmother is the spiritual world. She’s the dark matter. And people hear the word dark matter, and they think that’s something bad, evil, but it’s just a term that scientists made up 100 years ago. But ultimately, it describes this ethereal space that is this power that holds everything together that we can’t see, but it’s here, it’s everywhere.”
Many of Hackenwerth’s paintings and poems are about the women in his life — his wife, his daughter, his mother and his grandmother. “For me, the divine feminine is the gateway to existence,” he said. In his series “Love Letters,” he paints a poem to his grandmother titled “She Is Home.” It hangs next to “This Boy,” a love letter to himself as a child who didn’t really know his father, from the perspective of himself now as a dad. It’s incredibly moving.
Hackenwerth’s smaller works are by no means diminutive. On first glance, with their candy-colored palettes, they are deceptively cheerful. But like the rest of his work, something deeper is happening.
Hackenwerth is taking his place in the heritage of humans making marks from the beginning of our time to communicate ideas, creating in a stream-of-consciousness manner.
The practice of laying down text and obscuring it is also present with these works. Hackenwerth said some of them started from a place of outrage and aggression, with negative messages written on them. He worked through feelings, painting over the messages to work past them and find “joy and surrender.”
“They’re just captured moments of unfettered emotional outbursts, and that’s OK,” he said.
“Darkmatter.” On view through Oct. 16. Free. Noon-5 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday. The Gallery at Creative Pinellas, 12211 Walsingham Road, Largo. 727-582-2172. creativepinellas.org.
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