BRATTLEBORO—The Brattleboro Museum & Art Center is presenting an immersive installation specifically site-designed for its Mary Sommer Room by Thetford-based artist Carolyn Enz Hack, on display now until March 5.
Provocatively entitled Change Your Mind, this installation is composed from layers of mesh, screens, and reflective surfaces undulating above and around the viewer.
“Encountering Carolyn Enz Hack sculpture is a full-body experience,” the installation’s curator, Mara Williams, writes at the BMAC website. As viewers enter the confines of the small gallery, they are forced to engage with a large shape hovering slightly over their heads consisting of layer upon layer of wire mesh.
Hack likes working with translucent media. She writes at the Museum’s website that those materials can be layered to make areas of greater or lesser density.
“It relates to my earlier fascination with painting water, a medium that we can see into but that ultimately excludes us,” Hack explains. “Using varying sizes of wire mesh I can create objects that have a mystery about them stemming from our perception of changing density and uncertain edges."
’Presence and absence’
The mystery involves the intricate process of seeing.
“The eye follows the form as it sweeps back and down to its generative point, where it meets a pyramid of mesh suspended above a mirror,” Williams explains. “The simultaneous presence and absence of material in the mesh is heightened by the addition of paint, which sometimes coats the wire and other times clots the openings. Interspersed within the layers are tiny mirrors generating little bursts of light and movement. All combine to create a crystalline design.”
Williams elaborates: “As the sculpture is reflected from above, it leads one to mirror generative thoughts about infinity. But what most viewers will be struck by is the sheer physicality of the object, painted in sweet colors of orange and purple like a western sunset.”
Williams feels that the interplay between the installation and the small gallery creates a tension between viewer and object.
“This is a brand new work that Hack designed specifically in response to the space it is in,” she says. “We seem to be in some mysterious, or sacred, or theatrical space, with the sculptural elements, environment, and viewer constituting a metaphorical interconnected whole pointedly anchored by a reflecting pool.”
Filling the space of the small room with its substance, the object is a looming presence, which Williams believes makes us pay attention to our bodies moving around it as it hovers over us and beside us.
“Unlike a painting you do not view it frontally, but all around,” she says. “It is about a viewer’s interaction with himself, the object and the space of room it is in.”
Although definitely an abstract work, the sculpture is very suggestive.
“It’s central structure is that of a pyramid, a basic shape that has resonated for mankind for a very long time,” Williams says. “In a pyramid everything rises to a point, which indicates much about funneling energy.”
She thinks that people associate many things with this shape, like the great pyramid at Giza, the pyramid on our money, a mystical connection as used by the Freemasons — even the food pyramid.
“What is Hack saying in this enigmatic object of hers about pyramids?” Williams asks. “What does she want others to think about it? And then, to top it all, out of this archetypal object a propulsive shape grows. Or is it the other way around? And what should we make of that?”
The artist herself attempted to explain the work for The Commons.
“You can guess from its title that I feel this sculpture/installation is about the process of changing minds and transforming thoughts,” Hack says. “We take too much for granted in this world about what we see and know, without really examining why we believe in these things in the first place.
“Can an idea be also something else, something that we never thought of, or never considered believing? Especially in these times, I remain convinced that we must learn to understand other ways of thinking.”
Although she is now exclusively a fine artist, Hack began her career as a costume and set designer. Born in 1961, Hack studied theatrical design at Rutgers University’s Mason Gross School of the Arts in 1983, where she earned an MFA. In 1988-89, she attended Cornish College of the Arts to study oil painting.
“I first knew of Carolyn as a stage designer,” Williams says. “For a long time we were just good friends. I connected with her because 30 years ago I too started out as a costume and set designer, so we had a lot in common. Only after quite a while did I realize that she also was a fine visual artist.”
Shortly after Hack graduated from Rutgers, she moved to Seattle, where she worked for the many regional theater companies in that lively arts city.
“I assisted many productions, painting props and working on costumes, as well as designing,” Hack says. She also assisted with putting together sets and costumes for Seattle’s ballet and opera companies. A notable production to which she contributed her skills was Maurice Sendak’s legendary Nutcracker.
“When film companies began setting up shop in Seattle because the price of production was becoming prohibitively high in California, I became involved with film, working on props and costumes,” Hack says.
She found costume design on film to be particularly rigorous work.
“You constantly had to be on call on the set to make sure every detail was right,” she says. “In costume it is all about detail.”
A career shift
In 1993, Hack moved to Vermont, and around 2000, she decided to switch careers and focus on working as a fine artist. The transition was not that smooth.
“I had remarried. and so in Vermont, I now had not only my two daughters to consider, but my new husband and his three children,” Hack explains.
From 2000 until 2010, most of her energy went to raising her children.
“But when my kids finished high school and went off to college in 2010, I was ready to make a change in my life and could more fully devote myself to art,” she says.
Her initial work as a fine artist was painting in a realistic mode. However, when she began an internship at the Vermont Studio Center in 2011, she found she was drawing a blank for realistic paintings. So instead, she began to cut and paint paper to create work that was completely abstract.
The switch from realism to abstract painting and sculptures was a big leap for Hack.
“Frankly, realistic paintings are much easier to sell,” she explains. “So why did I change? I think it may be because I kept getting pressure from people around me to do things they understood.”
Something of a rebel, Hack felt the need to break those bonds and make an artistic leap.
“I wanted to reach beyond what I was doing and discover some vision stronger in me,” she says. “There are more important ways of figuring success than money. Nonetheless, I need to add that I have the luxury of a very supportive partner, so I do not have to completely support myself.
“Besides that, we have always lived simply; we own our house, so life in Thetford does not cost us that much to survive. Still in the end, it all comes down to the question of what do you want to be, and I resolved on the importance of sticking to my guns.”
Time has proved Hack’s decision a good one, with many sales and exhibitions of her work throughout Vermont. She also is the recipient of numerous awards, including the 2016 Jurors’ Award at the Festival of Fine Arts, Art’s Alive in Burlington; the 2011 ARTslant Worldwide fifth 2011 International Showcase winner for sculpture; and the 2004 Chafee Center for the Visual Arts Painting Merit award.