Visual Arts

Shear Magic

Hair holds a magic exalted for centuries. In the Biblical story of Samson, hair was a source of power. In Botticelli's Birth of Venus, long, flowing locks are the epitome of beauty. Hair has also been used for functional and artistic purposes. In the Victorian era, pendants containing a lock of hair were worn to express affection for a deceased loved one. In the early 20th century, braided belts and riding accessories were made from horsehair.

Scholars and artists have recently initiated a renaissance of the craft, making everything from purses to wedding rings woven with human hair. Several local art venues have picked up on this trend, most notably Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art's 2003 offering "HairStories." But Phoenix has never seen a show like "Hair," a group exhibition of photography and mixed-media work at Lisa Sette Gallery. While SMoCA's exhibition was comprehensive in its exploration of the cultural significance of hair, Sette focuses on the ways in which hair has inspired fine art.

Take, for example, La Dama by RES. The print, inspired by Leonardo da Vinci's Lady With an Ermine, has the hallmarks of a 15th-century painting: period dress, early Renaissance pose. An austere young brunette, clothed in a sumptuous gown of satin and brocade, cradles a preserved pig's head. Her hair is shown tied beneath her chin like a traditional medieval wimple, or veil, and she has six fingers on her right hand. In Leonardo's original version, the pig was a live ferret, the girl had the proper amount of digits, and the hair was most likely a veil, although retouching has caused it to appear as if tied under the chin. In effect, RES uses modern technology to simulate, albeit with a tongue-in-cheek twist, how "authentic" 15th-century art has been subtly altered by the many hands that have restored it. It's a clever piece.

Another standout is Gregory Sale's Cut a lock of hair — any size, anywhere, a quartet of framed mixed-media prints on paper. The two right panels contain the remnants of (presumably) the artist's visit to the aesthetician — six rectangles coated with wax in varying shades of blue and green, the offending patches of hair embedded deeply in each sticky surface. Ouch! It's titillating and a bit terrifying for those of us who prefer the painless chemical comforts of a depilatory. It's also a piece that really pushes the envelope of hair art, translating it for a modern audience and forcing me to reconsider any preconceived notions of the medium.

Sale's other contribution is the only interactive piece in the exhibition — a clear acrylic box with a removable pair of professional shears. On my visit, only a handful of visitors had obliged, forming a neat little pyramid of tendrils inside the box. Yet the variation in color and texture was astounding. There were soft reds, stark brunettes and delicate blond wisps nesting upon a thick swatch of coarse grays. The thoughts of each viewer linger in that pile of hair. Should I cut off a piece of myself? Will it affect my beauty? It's rare that a modern piece can contain such history.

With wall hangings ranging from antique mourning jewelry and human-hair doilies to modern Ektacolor C-prints, "Hair" delivers a powerful exploration of a historically significant medium. Hair is strong. Vital. Beautiful. Powerful. After seeing this exhibition, I'm not only convinced that hair is a viable art material; I'm tempted to hold off on that summer cut.

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Wynter Holden
Contact: Wynter Holden