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by Bill Lasarow

(CSU Bakersfield, Todd Madigan Gallery, Bakersfield) It has always been a wonderful quality: Art’s capacity to emerge out of the most personal, yes, trivial sources, and to afford us fresh visual experience that also illuminates Big Questions. Vida Hackman translates an obsession with birds, childhood memories, and the ambience of California’s enormous San Joaquin Valley into exceptionally fascinating and moving art. This survey of her work done since the early 1980’s features a central cast including ravens, doves, crows, jackdaws, ducks--and those are just the birds.

Two-dimensional studies--paintings, drawings, watercolors, photographs--express formal examination of favored subjects, but a deeply internal and symbolic connection to them as well. Some of this material ultimately found its way into the central constructions that crucially lift Hackman’s body of work out of the ordinary. Squire Raven’s Boat and Dinghy for Squire Raven’s Boat are at once odd contraptions and stately funerary vessels--they are both puzzling and illuminating. And, happily, they provide the kind of visual stimulation via their rich detail that is formally well balanced and organized.

Hackman has at least toyed with the idea of a performance in which she sails her art down the Kern River (a short distance from her studio), making it clear that ancient Egypt plays upon her imagination. The Kern becomes the Nile; her bird subjects become Horus, a god portrayed as a hawk. But beyond the nobility implied by such associations, the animals are pathetic. A seminal fragment of the Boat is an image of a crow that is imbedded with numerous porcupine quills (Crow-Quilled [1985]). The protective and transformative coat covers one side of the creature; the other side exposes the bird to be a hunter’s decoy.

The implications of this are very much a part of the artist’s intent; as a child she regularly went on family hunting trips on which she was both drawn to and repulsed by the lures and other devices by which birds and fish were captured, slaughtered, and finally consumed by the family. In playing out these early experiences more profound issues are massaged from the image’s now metaphorical existence: Longing and loss; power and vulnerability; the real and the apparent. Look at one side of Crowquilled, then the other. Then try wrestling with these conundrums. This two-sided quasi-bird will stick in your mind, a bookmark to remind you of your place as you repeatedly ponder.

“Dry Docked Dinghy for Squire
Raven's Boat", mixed media photo
construction, 27 x 9 x 9", 1998.

“Squire Raven's Boat", photo-collaged
construction, 68 x 48 x 36", 1994.

“Lazarus", mixed media, 1988.

“Art Tongue-Tied by Authority”,
mixed media,1990.

“Crow-Quilled", both sides,
mixed media, 1985.

“Censors" from the Seven C's, 1990.

Another series of drawings--the hilariously rhetorical Drawings of the Seven C’s [1988] (catch the pun, it’s the sort of wordplay that pops up frequently), in which flocks of birds stand in for various human types--surround a trio of cage-like bird feeders that each enclose an eccentrically bio-morphic white sculpture. As varied as the three forms are, that they are the same color and trapped within identical volumes brings them together.

Now, the title, Art Tongue-Tied by Authority [1990] deserves further discussion not simply to clarify the work, but to illustrate the richness of it’s depth. On the face of it the free biomorphic forms--art--are trapped within the restricted environment of the bird feeders--authority. But the title is itself borrowed from Shakespeare’s Sonnet number LXVI, in which the poet’s world-weary voice embraces the sleep of death. The body of the poem consists of a list of life’s flaws that won’t be missed--except “Save that, to die, I leave my love alone.”

Oh yes--those lovely little white forms in bird feeders are salt licks, formed by the tongues of grazing cattle.