Jason Hackenwerth ditches balloon animals for solid wood 

Float On

Jason Hackenwerth started making latex balloon animals at birthday parties as a struggling college student, until one day he was inspired to turn this source of extra cash into art. "It was my creative nature that caused me to eventually make the leap to using them in a fine-art context," he says. Initially fearful that his work wouldn't be taken seriously, he says, "It took a great many years before I had the courage to put latex balloons side by side with contemporary artists. I was afraid it would look like a birthday party turned into an art show." He wasn't sure how to answer the question of the "seriousness" of his art. "Eventually, I just didn't care anymore, and that's when I woke up as an artist."

Over the years, the balloon installations have grown in popularity, and Hackenwerth has shown at the Guggenheim Museum, the Museum of Arts and Design in New York, and at Art Basel in Miami. The large-scale, colorful installations are full of movement and often compared to sea creatures. They also only last a few weeks before they start to deflate, which has taught Hackenwerth about the temporary nature of art. "It's about the experience — a shared experience between the work and the people who see it. Most people walk down the street and rarely encounter something that makes them stop and scratch their heads. Maybe they don't even have an awareness of art in their lives, but then when they come in contact with something unusual, it opens a new potential in their lives." He laughs and apologizes about the deep nature of our discussion, adding, "I've learned through the process that it's all temporary. It's the experience that counts. In that way, the works do live on through our energy."

But there will be no latex balloons at The Tempest, Hackenwerth's upcoming solo show at Redux. His new preferred medium is wood. "When Janie [Askew] gave me the green light to make something other than latex balloon sculptures, I was thrilled," he says. "I hope that South Carolinians will forgive me for not doing balloons." Genuinely concerned about the reception of his non-balloon sculptures, he compares it to the backlash Bob Dylan received when he went electric. "I have to show my process, and if people don't care for it, hopefully it's an acquired taste and they'll like it later," he says. "As long as you stay focused in your work, it will sort itself out and reach the appropriate audience."

The Tempest, named for the Shakespeare play, examines the process of how a line becomes a form. It's a time-consuming process that begins with dozens of detailed drawings and ends with a large-scale wooden structure. Hackenwerth has been doodling his whole life, and he says his drawings have changed very little over the years. Starting with a blank page, he comes up with a design that fills the exhibit space. "I sit down with a piece of paper and make the same line over and over, and it morphs into something that conveys movement. It's a means of channeling the life energy. Buddha says we are the dance of life."

His sculptures are created organically in a way that's similar to the creation of sea shells. "I don't set out to create sea creatures," he says. "I feel like I'm exploring the building blocks of life through these shapes and lines, and if I can pay attention to the drawings, I can make them wave at each other. If my viewers are in front of them, they are not bored by static drawings, because they have an element of surprise."

A harmony exists between the large plywood sculptures, drawings, paintings, and the balloons. "Anybody who is familiar with my work will see that the lines and shapes and forms are related," he says. Awash in muted colors, there is a quiet and serious elegance in his plywood sculptures, as if we are looking at the bare bones of his usual balloon sculptures. Stepping out of his comfort zone is terrifying, but Hackenwerth thinks it's important to scare himself every now and then so he can keep learning.

Hackenwerth continues to examine the "seriousness" of his art. Do materials matter? Can balloons hang side by side with contemporary art on gallery walls? And must artists create for their audience, or can they create for themselves? "Eventually in my career, I hope people will realize that I don't just make balloon sculptures, but that I'm an artist that is able to express movement," he says. "That's what I try to make the work about."


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