Hackbardt, Marcella - Snowfall, 2011, digital chromogenic print, 19 x 36 inches

An increasingly common approach to a contemporary photography show on the part of the viewer is to wonder what flotsam and jetsam in photography’s gristmill will wash up on your mental shore. Surprises yet abound: do not miss the work of Marcella Hackbardt at The Weston Gallery through November 27th.   Her digitally constructed photographs from 2009-2011 are concise, hold-you-at-arms-length work saturated in color, full of intent and evocative of more beyond that arms length and outside the frame.  The work coheres as a body in your consciousness, and each photo references the others in a visual feedback loop.  The viewer becomes a fellow traveler in organic and material surfaces, from seasonal landscapes to the backyard stage snapshot tradition.

Hackbardt divides her images and text into grid-like sets or pairs, which cleanly allow her images and texts to fit contexts within contexts, and unifies her digitally assembled personal statements visually and intellectually: in these works we honor her intent, execution, and flawless presentation.  Hackbardt has lived in both Alaska and New Mexico, allowing me to fully understand her full “Big Sky” approach to specific figural forms against that wide view.  The format is as beautiful as the symbolic gesture imparted through the work.

For most people, the word “earthbound” implies a narrow life experience, and/or a lack of imaginative power; her photographs attempt to connect us between and amongst these different modes of existence, while indulging in some amusing semiotic play.  Thus the photographs combine subjects holding objects, personal objects, objects resonating with personal meaning, and objects that affirm the constant desire to collect/acquire. Just stamp them as “important artifacts”, keep close to your heart, the viewer agrees.

She designs images that show us the active nature of holding the things that we require to give them meaning from life’s experiences.  Such “objects” will vary in importance from person to person, but Hackbardt suggests that certain methods of identification of that which she makes special provide the visual clues to lure us in through objects into the ur-world of objecthood.  She thus combines new techniques (the digital) with what still resembles a romantic sensibility, selecting certain objects for examination, while others are rejected, thus playfully moving back and forth between modernism and post modernism.   The most engaging works become “yardscapes”, and the subjects become your family, their gifts, holding meaning in the form of objects, creating, among other things, a photographic peace treaty.  “Objects are emotions” the artist Mel Bochner once wrote, and Marcella Hackbardt visualizes and creates narratives around this idea.

Snowfall, 2011 is a real standout in this show.  Marcella floats a red coated woman about to step out into a sea of white, while carrying a floral book press secured to her body . The red just commands the space, to the left is a miniature observatory structure almost cartoon in scale, as if saying, “look here, look out there!” But where? Creeping out between the seems appear a bent wire, an odd loop as compressed as the flowers in the book press. It is one beautiful print, and in an age of over digitized flat imagery, this a a memorable experience.

Symbolic objects altered in symbolic environments can leave the viewer confused at best, lost at worst, and sometimes indifferent about their relationship. The world is still a stage, but Marcella has found new spotlights for it, and executes her discoveries with seamless clarity. I find the obvious “modelprops” a little too mundane for today’s urban sophisticates, and as they have already become an “escape hatch” photography has traversed long ago. The show does suffer from editing out the works that glare at the viewer, the stronger works need more space around them and could have presented a more unified vision.

Yet, this exhibition is not to be missed and is a clean visual treat for Cincinnati’s often bloated and artificially flavored photographic visions.

–Cal Kowal

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