June 12, 2012

A Survey of Hair Art

Hair is familiar and normal. It's something people experience on themselves and view on others every day. It belongs to the body--a natural extension of the person who 'wears' it. Disconnect human hair from the body, however, and it becomes its own entity, no longer identified with the person who grew it. Its materiality, its there-ness, hints at what is not there - the body of its previous owner. Unattached to its place on the scalp, disembodied hair can be repulsive. But it is also compelling; human hair is of nature, of corporeality, of mortality. It has a living history. As an artist's material, human hair is simultaneously fascinating and unnerving.

Band of lace from the Victoria & Albert Museum, circa 1640 - 1680.
From the 19th into the early 20th century in the U.S. and Europe, it was a normal and everyday practice to give cuttings of one's hair as tokens of affection, or to place hair cuttings into mourning jewelry as a remembrance of a loved one who had passed away. Creating art from human hair dates back in the European tradition to at least the mid-17th century, as seen in this band of lace circa 1640-1680 from England in the Victoria and Albert Museum, which may have been a bracelet given as a token of love.

Hair work designs by P. Florentin, circa 1870.
In the hands of Victorian men and women, hair cuttings were transformed into ornate 'handicraft' objects and high-end jewelry. Although the practice died away as photographs became the preferred means for remembering a loved one, there are a handful of artists today who have re-enlivened the tradition and Victorian hair art is now a highly collectible item. One of the most oft-cited 'strange' museums in the U.S. today, Leila's Hair Museum in Independence, Missouri, boasts a collection of over five hundred human hair wreaths and two thousand human hair jewelry pieces, mostly from the Victorian era. The detail and artistry in some of the pieces is astounding.

Victorian hair wreath at Leila's Hair Museum.

For most people in the modern era, hair art means the practice of cutting, shaping, twisting, tweaking and spraying hair, to create a style while the hair remains on the head. Hair design in this sense can be an art, and hair designers and fashion designers in the past decades have utilized hair to create 'looks' to accentuate fashions or body's silhouette. Self-styled "avante garde" hair designer Nicholas French fashions hair into sculptural forms that could stand on their own as pieces of art, but instead poise on the heads of fashion models. The Japanese art director/designer Nagi Noda, before her untimely death in 2008, took the idea of hair design into the wearable art realm with her hair hat sculptures of animals and other objects. Artist Shoplifter, aka Hrafnhildur Arnadottir, has experimented with hair art sculpture both on and off the body. Her collaborations with other artists have led to innovative pieces, including work produced with Bjork for her album Medulla.

Hair piece by Shoplifter for Bjork Medulla project.
Hair hat by Nagi Noda.

There are a number of contemporary artists utilizing human hair as a material all on its own, independent of the human head. After Hurricane Katrina, artist Loren Schwerd expanded the Victorian concept of hair as a symbol of mourning for lost loved ones in her series Mourning Portrait. Her sculptures, made of human hair extensions that she found outside a beauty store in the Ninth Ward, depict houses abandoned after the hurricane.

1317 Charbonnet St., 2007, by Loren Schwerd
Adrienne Antonson, fashion designer and artist, has been prolific in her series of human hair sculptures, which includes insects, abstract works, and pieces resembling everyday objects like scissors or a magnifying glass. In some sculptures the material is more subtle, while in others, such as a pair of gloves, the hair makes its presence well-known.

Human hair sculpture by Adrienne Antonson.
Human hair sculpture by Adrienne Antonson.
Human hair offers unique properties as a artist's material. Long and thin, hair is a natural fiber that can be woven, stitched and manipulated. Hair can be used as raw and rough single strands, or put together as waves of flowing shiny bands. Both Jenine Shereos and U.K. artist Kerry Howley, utilize the fineness and tensile strength of human hair to create works of intricate detail. For her Leaves series, Shereos hand stitched and knotted strands of hair onto a water-soluble background that was then dissolved to leave the delicate pattern of leaf skeleton.

Leaves, 2010, by Jenine Shereos. Photo by Robert Diamante.
 Howley's hair necklaces recall the fine Victorian hair work in a form both beautiful and modern. When displayed on the body, they appear to be a natural part of the human form, or a living tattoo.

Hair necklace by Kerry Howley.
Fascinating and potentially distasteful, hair is a material that will stay with us, whether on the head or off. As a material, it will likely continue to draw the interest of the artist and viewer alike, whether that person is a lover of historical hair work or an explorer of the realms of contemporary art.

February 22, 2012

Ron Ulicny at Spoke Gallery

An upcoming solo show in March at Spoke Art gallery in San Francisco will feature Portland-based artist Ron Ulicny.

"The Nighttime Arborist." Image courtesy of Ron Ulicny.

You may have seen Ron's work last June at the Mixed Media IV fundraiser for PDX Pop Now! at Grand Central Bowl. A variety of artists custom designed bowling pins, which were then auctioned off to raise funds. Rather than decorating the surface of the bowling pin or making a play on the pin's shape, Ulicny used the project as a springboard to bring to life a vision of an other-worldly miniature universe within the bowling pin.

With everyday objects and miscellaneous hardware, and hours (days) of solo concentration (isolation) in the studio, Ulicny conjures what he calls "viscurrealistic fabrications," conglomerations of disparate pieces assembled with precision and care to create a sculptural unity.
"Murder Ballad." Courtesy of Ron Ulicny.

Ulicny's work is seamless. The sculptural juxtapositions appear so natural, it seems that these works are objects that come from the history of a parallel world that is just a little different than our own. Their meaning feels at the tip of one's tongue, yet it is the mystery of not quite being able to understand, of not quite getting the pun, that engages and engrosses the viewer.

Speaking of mystery, Ron has revealed little of the new work, providing only close-up teaser images (he says you'll have to go to the show to see the work, or wait until it's up on his website):

"Circles" teaser. Image from www.ronulicny.com/news.

(There are many examples of Ron's previous work, available for the viewing for all, on his website.) But, here's another, especially-for-you, sneak preview of another new piece:

A new piece for the Spoke Art show. Image courtesy of Ron Ulicny.

Ron Ulicny's solo show, of 'new work', runs from March 1st through March 22nd at Spoke Art, 816 Sutter Street, San Francisco (open Wednesday through Sunday). The opening reception is Thursday, March 1st, 6-10pm. If you can't make it to San Fran, Ron will also have a show in the late summer this year at Guardino Gallery on Alberta St.

June 20, 2011

"Equine" at Froelick Gallery

Equine, open through July 16th at Froelick Gallery in the inner Pearl, is a juried group show that explores the symbolic meanings of the horse across cultures and through history through the eyes of (mostly) contemporary artists.

Maximilio Pruneda, Blood Storm, Froelick Gallery

Catherine Haley Epstein, Pony Ride 2, 2011, Froelick Gallery

Over 30 artists are represented in Equine, and the form of the horse (or part thereof) is portrayed in paintings, drawings, photography, prints, textiles and sculptural works of various media. Although several pieces contemplate the horse in a natural setting, most of the works spark thoughts and emotions about how horses have played and play in history, myth, society and personal experience.

Christopher Rauschenberg, Marche aux peuces, 2010, Froelick Gallery

Dorian Reisman, Holy Horse, 2010, Froelick Gallery

With so many pieces, the show is able to encompass a broad range of work by well-established artists, such as Rick Bartow and Susan Seubert, and lesser known local and 'hip' artists like Dorian Reisman (21st century pop) or Emily Katz (DIY handicrafts go fine art) next to historical works such as those of Tom Hardy (1950s) and a famous photographic collotype of the horse in motion by Eadweard Muybridge (19th century). Yet, while bringing together quite disparate artists and media, the show remains tight and true to the subject of the show, with the horse remaining the poignant and central subject in almost every piece, and an overall curatorial flavor stays intact.

Susan Seubert, Bridle, Blinders, 2011, Froelick Gallery

Rick Bartow, White Shadow (Homage to Little Beaver Fry), 2004, Froelick Gallery

Froelick Gallery, on NW Davis between Broadway and the Park Blocks, is open Tuesday through Saturday, 10:30am to 5:30pm and by appointment.

June 10, 2011

Object Stories at Portland Art Museum

As technology enhances the access that people have to art, history, culture and entertainment, museums attempt to keep up with virtual collections and exhibitions, new technologies to accompany in-house exhibitions and innovative education programs. Over the past several years, the Portland Art Museum has expanded their education program to bring a new generation of art viewers through their doors.

In 2010, PAM partnered with Portland State University for "Shine a Light," a night-time party inside and outside the museum that featured food carts, beer and music, in addition to new ways of viewing art. Art-related activities included "marrying a work of art," touching art

object replicas (called "You Can Touch This") and watching nude performances of wrestling in imitation of Greco-Roman statuary. “We want people to be open-minded about what can happen in a Museum, ” Education Director Tina Olsen commented about the event. She added, “We are suggesting that visitors view art as something that is happening right now—that isn't in the past—but that is directly related to their life today.”

More recently, PAM has installed a new permanent exhibition called Object Stories. Fashion Buddha, Ziba Design and Eyelevel collaborated to create a sound-proof recording studio inside the museum where visitors share their personal story about an object that is particularly meaningful to them. This could be anything from a favorite stuffed animal, to heirloom jewelry, to a favorite piece of art. The story sessions, which must be reserved ahead of time, last about 20 minutes and can be recorded in English or Spanish. Professionals then edit the story down to about 2 minute.

Image from Museum 2.0

Each visitor is photographed with their object and must share a "six word story" (a la Twitter) that explains it all in a nutshell. You can view the photos and short stories, such as "Roaring kissing dragon, don't be scared" or "A house has an aging soul" or "Middle school thesaurus thief" on the

Image from Portland Art Museum's ObjectStories.org.

Object Stories website. The exhibition aims to involve the public, rethink the meaning of objects, and engage audiences on new levels. Learn more about the installation.
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