Visiting the new exhibition "Hair Stories" at the Minnesota Artist's Gallery at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts is a bit like stumbling into an aristocratic parlor of the 18th or 19th Century. The walls of the gallery are laden with gilt-framed oil portraits on tall canvases. In the back corner of the room, a large installation evokes the colors of the past in satin drapery, dun-colored rope, and copper-colored paper. Shelves lining the space, and cases on the wall and floor, are filled with curios, quaint in style, perhaps once fashionable, but ugly now to our modern sensibility.
It is one of the possibilities of art to evoke a long-past era, and to bring to light the novel and bizarre. Centuries ago it was not uncommon among European men of means to accumulate and catalog exotic items and goods from far-off lands. Often these men specialized in certain esoteric items--the jawbones of exotic monkey species from Asia, perhaps, or the breast feathers of sea birds of the Indian Ocean, or the sextants from 16th-century pirate ships--and placed them in a special cabinet, known as a Wunderkammer or wonder cabinet, for display. Today we see these Wunderkammern as a way of celebrating, or grappling with, the conquests of the times in all their hideous and ugly detail: bloody dominion over distant places and people, greedy mastery over new realms of science, industry, and engineering.
In "Hair Stories," the participants--four artists, three writers, and two art historians--specialize in hair, looking at all things having to do with the stuff, displaying it in every curious and unseemly way, using it as the basis of their artistic ethos. In "Hair Stories," then, we are put in the role of the aristocratic class that has the leisure and ease to examine, as with a Wunderkammer, all the odd beliefs and quaint customs surrounding the subject of hair.
Consider the items presented by University of Minnesota art historian Michael Stoughton. Borrowed from collections and taken from his own holdings, these odd items of jewelry--watch fobs for men; bracelets, earrings, and brooches for women; and a "floral" wreath--are all primarily made up of human hair, as was fashionable from about 1850 till just after 1900. They are repulsive objects to contemporary viewers, excessive in their fine detailing, yet dull and colorless as human hair is. One can only wonder why the owners of these objects valued them, ugly as they were. The whole idea of hair jewelry is weird and yet oddly compelling in this exhibition: It inspires a physical shudder that suggests the depth of our relationship to hair--one based on both attraction and repulsion.
This same dynamic informs the oil paintings of Minneapolis artist Nancy Robinson. Rendered in a style of heightened realism in bright and gaudy oil paint, Robinson's canvases depict women at odds with themselves and with their natural states, as represented by their hair. In "Persistent Quirk III," for instance, a tall and elegant woman in an evening gown, her hair pulled back in a French braid, looks aristocratically at the viewer from over her shoulder. Incongruously, however, the elegant woman is disfigured somewhat by the coarse, dark strands of hair on her upper lip and by the wiry feline tail that emerges from her coccyx. The unease inspired by such an image--the civilized and sexy crossed with the rough and bestial--is like that experienced while gaping at a car crash: One is compelled to look and disgusted by the very urge to do so.
Another of Robinson's paintings, "Mary Magdalene," features a beautiful young woman with large bluish eyes, puffy red lips, and a lithe body. The odd thing about this idealized beauty is that the young woman is covered all over with a stiff growth of body hair, and the blond hair on her youthful head is stubby and wild. This juxtaposition of youth and beauty with wildness and ugliness makes for a disturbing image--this without taking into account the religious context of the title. On the weekend after the show's opening, one patron passing through the gallery was aghast at such an image. "Who could have done this to Mary Magdalene?" she uttered breathlessly. "That's horrible. Such a desecration!"
Where Robinson seems to play with the exotic nature of the follicular, sculptor Erica Spitzer Rasmussen employs hair to examine her self-image. Rasmussen's work, she writes on a museum tag, is informed by a childhood myth relayed by her father: Eating tomatoes would make hair grow on her chest. The artist, who internalized this story and for 20 years avoided tomatoes, now makes this a focus of her art (call it an act of courage, or perhaps self-flagellation for previous gullibility). Her "Tomatic Myth, No. 4" comprises a breastplate shape of handmade paper covered with dried tomatoes, hung in front of a shelf of hirsute tomatoes preserved in jars. As with the glass case of hair jewelry, this is a work that raises questions in the viewer about different ideas of taste and beauty. After all, not everyone should be expected to find beauty in decaying or moldy tomatoes.
Over the course of her research about hair, Rasmussen made some unusual discoveries that have helped her create other work. One such piece originated from her learning that in the early 20th Century, women used x-ray treatments to rid their bodies of unwanted hair. "Dirty Little Secret" is a life-size sculpture constructed of handmade paper and other mixed media and shaped like a dress pattern from the 1930s or 1940s. It is vaguely flesh-colored, and its surface is covered with small pink pustules and a crude, netlike mass of twine. Underneath the dress, which hangs from the ceiling on a hanger, is an eerie halo of bristly hair that appears to have fallen from the epidermal surface of the dress. The practice of using x-rays for female depilation ended after it was discovered that many of the women developed radiation sickness and cancer.