Rob Hauck explores real borders and boundaries in latest exhibit

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“What are the things that separate us? And what is the cost? What can I do?”

Rob Hauck asked himself those questions after seeing news reports of families separated at our Southern border, children taken from their parents, placed in detention centers, mothers and fathers sent back to where they came from, not knowing where their children were or if they would ever see them again. Being an artist, what he could do was make art. He made 13 paintings that are currently on view at the West Tisbury library.

Hauck is the son and grandson of immigrants. His grandfathers on both sides of his family were POWs in World War I who survived because of the humanity of the personnel in charge of the camps where they were held. His father was born in Germany, his mother in France. They met in Paris, where Rob’s father was serving in the U.S. Army. Rob himself was born in France. “I’ve learned about immigration from multiple perspectives,” he said.

He also studied and taught political science, gaining another set of perspectives, and cementing his instinctive belief in the shared humanity of us all. “Ninety-nine point nine percent of human DNA is the same, our single species Homo sapiens,” Hauck said. He began to explore the reasons for our supposed “otherness.” Geography, language, religion, and culture were the differences that have been used to dehumanize one another and to justify the wars and animus that ensued.

The challenge became how to design imagery with which to transform those concepts into visual statements, to make what is first and foremost a work of art. Hauck created a set of marks and shapes to symbolize the separations he saw.

Hauck has worked for many years with a limited palette of black and white, although that hardly begins to describe the range of grays and neutral tones in his paintings. They may be warmed with yellow ochre or cooled-down grays made of complementary colors. If you look carefully, you will find the barest marks of red or blue that appear as ancillary to the stark overall impression. It makes for a dramatic spareness of presentation, well suited for a subject so potentially fraught with realistic imagery.

As you enter the program room where the exhibition is arranged, the first painting on your left is titled “Lingua.” Language, one of the separators, makes it difficult for us to understand one another. It features a thin, pale-colored wash of paint that obscures an area of dark, calligraphic marks, like a thin veneer of civility covering up active violence. The painting is divided by a black shape. Analogous to the whole are a letter “a,” a drawn line that may or may not be someone’s thumb, a series of black circles on a patch of red that may or may not be bullet holes. Use your own imagination to interpret Hauck’s symbols, what he is trying to say, or just look at a painting and appreciate it for what its surface presents.

The next painting is “Familia,” where two black-painted shapes hold a representation of a small child shape in their arms, a family. It is another example of using overpainting; its thinness lightly covers what is underneath, or an opaque swath completely transforms, edges, and obliterates any previous statement. This is accomplished in variations of grays, ochre, and cream.

“Forbidden” combines a heavily textured surface with an open area, a broad horizontal band with the most delicate drawing from edge to edge. It looks like barbed wire fencing, deliberately separating the top and bottom of the painted surface, dividing it into two uncrossable spaces.

“Geography” uses a black border or horizon with a red skylike slash across the top third of the painting. What do the arrows pointing downward mean? In “Crack in the Wall,” two dark bands are cut in two by a light horizontal. “Stopped at the Border” seems to imply that there is nothing to see but a red-colored number, 23, and the letter A remaining. Memories? A sort of identification number assigned at the border? To the mother? To the child? Or maybe the mother is assigned a numerical identifier and the child a letter, separate, incompatible systems that will never match up? Two more paintings are hung together as a pair, “Zero Tolerance 1 & 2,” again using symbols that represent a mother’s sheltering arms around her child.

“Borders and Boundaries, 1 & 2” are the title paintings of the exhibition, and the most striking. Hauck has incorporated collage onto the surfaces of both paintings, sewing and/or gluing parts of his studio drop cloths to mark strong vertical and horizontal areas. Their raised hemmed edges make clear divisions. In #1, those borders appear softer, more amorphous than the orderly grid that underlies #2. Both are painted with lyrical passages that belie their message: However they are presented, borders and boundaries are not to be breached in 21st century America, no matter how gently or rigidly those borders appear.

“There is a very porous line separating art from propaganda. The difficult part is making art with this perspective and remaining an artist.” Hauck said he had never planned nor wished to mix the two, indeed he had studiously avoided it. But he said, “We’re at such risk now, and every day it’s getting worse.”

It has been interesting to see art made with a political impetus behind its creation. One doesn’t naturally associate it with most of what we see in studios and galleries on the Vineyard. I will say that I know several artists who are deeply concerned for our country and for our world. Some are obsessed with watching the news and interpreting what they see in their art. Some are unable to watch the news, but are becoming committed to making art that is politically or environmentally motivated. It’s hard not to have an opinion. Artists are no different from anyone else as we observe and process the world around us. It’s likely that opposing opinions will be represented.

There have been some works of art that have become so iconic and so powerful that people did take notice, and their response made an impact in real time. I think of Picasso’s “Guernica” as probably the most famous of these. If you have ever seen it, it is unforgettable.

That said, I appreciate the desire for artists to do what Rob Hauck has done, to make a statement, to incorporate what they see in the world into a meaningful, thoughtful body of work. He has made art, paintings that can be appreciated for the visual painterliness and design of their surfaces. If you care to interpret a message, then that will only add to the richness of what he has presented in this exhibition.