You don’t have to be a market analyst to know that we love us our hair. Worldwide, tens of billions of dollars are lavished annually on hair care products alone; add to that the amount then spent on the industry of stylists who keep us looking well groomed and handsomely coifed, and you have numbers larger than the GNP of many countries.
It is also a medium that vexes us. For every property about it we may prize, we spend a great deal of time working to overcome those aspects we don’t, whether it be color, volume, or placement as well as the host of qualities that come under the heading of “manageability.”
This is not a new obsession. For millennia, the hair on our bodies has represented an ever-changing standard of beauty, power and wealth. It is the stuff of stories from the ages. The seductive Delilah robbed Samson of his strength by conspiring to cut off his locks.
Rapunzel’s golden tresses were (obliquely) her ladder to freedom. Though the tax-protesting purpose of her ride is long forgotten, there’s also Lady Godiva, who infamously rode horseback through town naked, clothed only in her own mane of hair.
Perhaps what this preamble demonstrates is that hair is important to us and reveals a great deal about ourselves and how we project ourselves to the world. So it should stand to reason that hair used as a medium in art might raise questions about the who, what, where and why of the person from whom it might have come. Or at least that’s what compelled artist Catherine Ferguson in her latest explorations for the Moving Gallery, now on view at the Garden of the Zodiac.
Omaha-based Ferguson is a sculptor and installation artist who has in her considerable career challenged herself to create new bodies of work at frequent junctures. She has worked in glass, bronze, steel, willow, rock, light, sound and found materials, to name but a few. Though hair is a new direction, it reminds that her work often entwines organic elements with the associated cultural memories of objects to create evocative sculptural art.
The sculptures and assemblages in this show are all recent, but the result of an idea that intrigued Ferguson nearly three years ago. A relic from this time (word chosen quite intentionally) is the untitled piece consisting of a white-painted braid laid into a narrow wooden box and hung on the wall. It has the distinct quality of a memento, a reliquary—of something special, meaningful, even sacred that lives on by being preserved and kept as a treasure.
We have various time-honored rituals involving the saving of a loved ones tresses, whether sweet evidence of baby’s first haircut, or a snipping from a husband or son going off to war. Though clearly contemporary, many of Ferguson’s works—especially the boxes of coiled braids—call to mind the hair art of the Victorian period in which the creation of woven jewelry, small sculptures and elaborate framed wreaths made (primarily) from the hair of a deceased family member achieved highly desired, fine craft status.
In fact, the second gallery of the show is hung with a number of investigations into the conjunction of hair and wood. Each organic material, Ferguson points out, is capable of regeneration when cut, although such growth is only implied in the works themselves.
In some works, the hair cascades loosely from a box, delicately wafting in the air currents created by HVAC and passers-by. In others, hanks peek out or appear to be caught in crevices or tightly closed lids. There’s also an interesting tension in these pieces between formal control (the structure of boxes and styled hair) and the emotive qualities of sentiment and remembrance that they conjure.
Two strong sculptural works also inhabit this back space. C-Hair is a small wooden chair that has been covered in thick tufts of dark hair and bristles with a strong energy. Similarly, Cabinet of the Hunter turns a found dartboard box, animal-like furniture legs and a hide-like pelt of hair into a sly and charming totem.
These improbable combinations with their untamed wildness, hirsute sensuality and dark humor call to mind much Surrealist sculpture, especially Meret Oppenheim’s classic Fur Lined Teacup. “Art has to do with spirit, not decoration,” the Swiss artist once said, and in these works, the animism is especially strong.
In the front gallery, Ferguson uses hair as her sole medium. Because the strands lose the association with their box “receivers” (to use an antique term for a hair-saving jar), these works are more decidedly conceptual and edgier. Mound is a great nearly hemispherical armature of blonde braids and dreads, with a corresponding tangled pile of plaits on the floor off to the side. The mass of its twined tresses gives it a certain Medusa-like vibe.
Ferguson also explores the idea of hair creating a drawing effect on the wall, like shadowy pencil or charcoal gestures. Toward that end, Net is a grouping of cascading and delicately woven strands; Inkspots is a linear wall installation in clumps of black hair.
Of course, what hasn’t been said is just this—HAIR in art? Real or synthetic (and most of the works in the show use artificial hair), there is just something about its separateness from the body that is either intriguing and attractive or eerie and repulsive to viewers. To be sure, there is a definite sense of play, mystery, surreal tension and open-endedness to the works that does not resolve easily to those for whom the cuttings are just too creepy. For those willing to tease it out, there’s much to ponder amid these familiar yet disquieting forms.
Catherine Ferguson: Hair continues at the Garden of the Zodiac until May 21 at 1042 Howard Street in the Old Market Passageway.