"I had been in the mire of nuts and bolts, working with lights, synthetic furs, outrageous materials," says artist Ryan Hackett. "I needed quiet."
Out of that quiet, the 34-year-old Prince George's County native created the works that earned him the 2010 Janet & Walter Sondheim Artscape Prize, a $25,000 annual juried competition for visual artists from the Mid-Atlantic region.
Last year, Hackett was named a Sondheim finalist for his striking collection of nature-themed installations — a fake fur-covered bench vibrating from a concealed subwoofer that imitated the heartbeat of a hibernating polar bear; a synthetic skull of a white Siberian tiger with headphones that allowed people to hear the animal's digitally transformed vocalizing; small shells attached to the wall, emitting a chorus of cicada sounds.
A different side of Hackett is currently on view at the Baltimore Museum of Art's Sondheim exhibit, running through Aug. 1. His prize-winning works are certainly quieter. But they are, in their own way, just as startling as his 2009 entries.
Two large-scale abstract acrylic-on-canvas paintings in marine blue and white, "Hypertension 1" and "Hypertension 2," are apt to conjure images of whales and other sea life. In a nearby alcove is a video installation Hackett titled "Humpback Whale Dislocation System" — 22 1/2 minutes of clouds unfolding in real time across a blue sky to a subtle soundtrack of enhanced whale songs.
"This work is so not spectacle," the artist says. It's not simple, either. "I couldn't do something easier if I tried," he says. "An idea just happens and I run with it. I'm totally obsessed."
The contrast between Hackett's 2009 and 2010 Sondheim entries does not represent a sea change for him, but another chapter in what he describes as "a long life of constantly changing work. I try to keep the work very fresh," he says.
All of that changing and refreshing may be traced to an early age.
"I was diagnosed with ADD [attention-deficit disorder] as a kid," the artist says, "and I was medicated. But I don't see it as a disorder. My life is a series of extreme tangents. I've lived a life of odd jobs, from moving art to construction, house painting and teaching. I liked jobs where I could daydream while doing them," Hackett adds with a laugh.
He played guitar in rock bands when he was younger, adding another layer to his life experiences and inspiration for his art. "I love reverbs," he says, "the way the echoes imply infinity."
Hackett, who earned degrees from the University of Maryland and the San Francisco Art Institute, has a disarmingly soft-spoken way about him. But when he talks about his art, his hands become quite animated, as if they're re-creating the pieces.
"I've painted my whole life," he says. "It is not just a [Sondheim] show thing. This stuff is, if nothing else, a progression of my life's work. I've always been interested in the space between the natural and synthetic world. Everything I do tends to go to the serene or down-tempo. It tends to have an element of relaxation in it, though it is not necessarily totally comfortable."
The two paintings in the Sondheim exhibit are at once placid and vibrant, abstract and familiar. Significantly, each canvas is 6 feet 3 inches high, Hackett's own height. (One painting is 10 feet long, the other 12 feet.)
Each painting "had to be big," he says. "I wanted the physical relationship to it." The artist also wanted to add a little of his family into the work; he had his 2 1/2-year-old son add a dab of paint along the way for good luck.
For all of their size, however, the works do not intimidate or overwhelm; they invite. Hackett notes that a viewer "can see anything from animal structures to artificial architectural things" in them. But because he likes to "set up ambiguities, to convey a sense of loss of time and space," there is no one interpretation.
Clues can be found, though, especially in the dominant blue color on the two canvases.
"A big driving factor for me is a lot of scuba diving I used to do," Hackett says. "I'm working with that color, and the forms are being pulled out of it. I liked diving very deep, the feeling of being suspended in a world that was natural, but also felt artificial to me. I liked to look into the ocean from that depth, looking into nothing. It's like when you close your eyes; you don't see anything, but the brain tries to make it into something, to complete the puzzle."
Hackett has a long-standing interest in the aquatic.
"When I was a kid, in elementary school, I told my parents I wanted to be an underwater installation artist," he says. "That's the dead truth. Water has always been big to me. I went into marine science for a while. I worked in a scuba shop in the Keys."