WORDS Megan Kelley
The works of Pam Barrett Hackett form intimate windows into “personal interiors, little worlds where I go exploring, and it is easy for me to get lost in these micro spaces.” The paintings straddle the horizon space between “ether and earth,” creating elements of recognizable paths, structures, and flora, even as they dissolve into painterly abstraction and a love of material intent. Landscape flirts with dreamscape, existing simultaneously between macro and micro, between the terrain of land and the terrain of skin. “Everything is vague in terms of that third dimension.”
For the viewer leaning into these intimate squares of wax and oil, the effect is akin to standing at the edge of wild, even ritualized, spaces. In the act of observing, as you come close to the surface, the external world fades out of your periphery. And suddenly, the back of the neck prickles at an awareness of a permeable boundary, waiting to be woke. “You are choosing to enter a place where you are very open to suggestion.” The landscape shifts between mark and matter, between paint and place, never quite clear which is which.
“I don’t want to over-define a space,” says Barrett Hackett, whose titles even skirt in those liminal spaces between generalized terms and suggestive secrecy that hints at familiarity. Much like trail names, they provide just enough context to guide, but none of the particulars of what to expect along the journey. “It is important to me that the paintings remain in a space where anyone can imply their own terrain, that they are not so much Something that they cannot be something else to someone else.”
The result of this intention is landscapes whose presentation allows for this simultaneity of compressed textures that take advantage of the depth of the pictorial plane. Dark, earthy shadows ebb their way out of layers of scraped paint; pigments recede, pushed into the rivulets of wax and rubbed into the natural places of resistance. Color becomes a tidal force— something with its own power but also part of a larger pull.
Like straddling the places between waking and dreaming, the works and the spaces they create defy easy definition. Places of opaque whites and foggy greys navigate forming elements of visible terrain in one place, but become painterly marks of obfuscation in another. “You are navigating this translucence, peering through and around and past it, as a membrane between you and this place.
Sometimes you can step through. Sometimes you cannot.”
The process of encaustic is “also a very liminal process,” slipping between activated and inert, waking and dormant. “Oils stay alive on the surface where you’re painting, but when you bring them into encaustic,” moving the brush from the pot of hot wax to the painting, the mixed wax “immediately cools, and gets quiet as it skims across the surface, and then stops . . . but you wake it again with the torch.”
The ability of encaustic to encase itself makes it a medium “well known for suspending,” and Barrett Hackett has been known to include elements of bark, hair, and metallic leaf in her work. But the paintings are rarely about dormant space. The aspect of encaustic that most draws her attention is its ability to depict a passage of time through the labor of addition followed by scraping—that in taking away, in unearthing, “the whole history of a piece is revealed.” The process of removal transforms the painting into a sort of archaeological site where even when resolved, the evidence of labor and removal becomes its own presence. In the absence of material, what remains as aftermath continues to carry the original weight.
As a result, unlike most encaustic work whose panels are heavy masses of wax, Barrett Hackett’s work is as materially light as her atmospheres are airy. Her process of scraping creates narrow, intentional panels, sometimes left raw, sometimes sealed with another membrane of glossy, clear wax. The result is a rising luminosity, like the lift of breath after the asking of a question.
“Mine is an excavating process,” a deliberate choice to reveal by removal, and while “there are things under there sometimes that you don’t see,” Barrett Hackett challenges the medium to reveal in material what it hides in subject matter. “Even as they hide a lot contextually and pictorially, they reveal a lot materially.”
At the end of the path are works where layers of time wind tightly around layers of material, even more tightly wrapped into layers of depth and place. They form a thread the mind insists on following, even as the landscape turns corners and defies the straight path. “Your mind is trying to make sense, to figure out how everything comes together, and that is what keeps us in these spaces: that even in uncertainty, we hear a call for a persistence of order.”
To view Barrett Hackett’s body of work online, visit www.pambarretthackett.com.