Flatfile Contemporary in Chicago was kind of great. They did one creative and inspiring thing that others galleries did not. Every few months the gallery director would call and offer a selection of thematic group shows.
“Which ones do you want to do? Politics? Botanica? Paired Self Portraits?”
“Yes. Yes. And Yes.”
Then something wonderful would happen. It was like having an art pen pal. I wanted to put something amazing in the envelope to send to Chicago. Each invitation inspired new ways of working.
The Politics show generated a pair of portraits rendered in human hair.
Malcolm X was crafted in the hair of African Americans, both natural and straightened. The gallery director went to Chicago barbers and got some for me. I turned it into a velvet on trace, the features of his face rendered in natural hair, his glasses in straightened.
I was 13 or so when I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X. The passage where he conks his hair with lye and chemically sears his head to achieve a beauty equal to self-annihilation spoke to me.
The companion to the Malcolm X portrait for this show was JFK in natural blond.
I am not sure that the hair I used was this color naturally, but the point is easy to see. One defines beauty, beautiful or not.
Here’s a link to the Malcolm essay on conking his hair.
These works in hair started me on even more series using these materials. Left in the studio with plenty more trace and plenty more hair, I fiddled until I started rendering decorative patterns in hair. Fabric and wallpaper patterns seem light and meaningless even as they point to women, femininity, domestic interiors, and, because of the hair, flesh. Pretty, trivial, and to the bone.
Almost everything I make leaves blood on the page. When I made sculpture in cast iron, I broke bathtubs into three inch bits with a sledgehammer. There is not making that is not built from human life. All things, whether made by human or machine, are the product of human effort, human days, human lives spent. I wanted to link that flesh to the object. It’s hard to find the hunched shoulder and the callused hand in that pretty thing on a hanger.
So it is with these wallpaper samples. The patterns look clean and elegant at a glance. Look closer and the tufts become visible, along with the stray hairs that fall to the bottom of the frame.
This is a confining aspect of working with galleries. They liked the work. They wanted the work. But can you do something about those hairs?
By 2000 I had set aside the decorative patterns in favor of a petri-dish-like circle, which sometimes spilled over into gelatinous forms that look like simple organisms. Pools of pristine pink enamel were besmirched by light edgings of hair suggesting biology and sex.
Erotica and pornography show tempting pink flesh, moist lip, rich hair unfolding. They never show the revolting discovery of such things out of place: blood or hair and a splootch of bodily fluid on a linoleum floor.
I had developed an odd relationship with my misplaced romantic reach. I suffered from phantom lover syndrome. I lost my lover suddenly and was left with an apartment full of his things. I reached for him in the night. This impulse: intimacy. A natural connection, severed now had to be restrained for fear I would slime the accountant or someone on Muni. I wore my desire like a shroud. I had to protect those around me from spilling it on them.
I made hundreds of these works. The last versions seem right as well: enamel circles the exact size and shape of vinyl records in bright colors with fur elements. It seems like music is the one form that can comfortably hold that animal, guttural outburst.Read Less