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Art

Witting Hairs

Sonya Clark Considers Mortality Via The Mammalian Protein That Sprouts From Our Heads

HAND IN HAND: Sonya Clark's "Pearl of Mother."

By Deborah McLeod | Posted 7/30/2008

Sonya Clark: Loose Strands, Tight Knots

At the Walters Art Museum through Sept. 21

How are you on the subject of hair? The answer may tell you more about yourself than you might wish to know. A quick perusal of the comment book at the entrance to Sonya Clark's intimate little show at the Walters Art Museum, Loose Strands, Tight Knots, exposes a few visitors' squeamish reactions. Hair is the greatest trespasser in our psyche's capacity to maneuver between love, lust, and unwelcome intrusion. Just remember stroking the hair of a loved one or discovering a strand in your food.

Tosha Grantham, the Walters' David Driskell fellow, has organized this small but powerful treasury of hirsute tradition and artistic innovation as her final curatorial project before wrapping up the fellowship and returning to her post at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Despite its equivalent fascination with historical artifacts and strange new curiosities, the exhibition is neo-Victorian in tone. Loose Strands, besides offering a number of exquisite little borrowed relics, inspires visitors to locate further compatible items in the museum's permanent collection. Victorian hair jewelry, Madonna and Child bas relief and painted icons, antique ivory combs, and a bronze Buddha head and mudra hand, among other works, exact a dialogue with Clark's sympathetic creations.

A longtime Baltimore resident, now the chair of Virginia Commonwealth University's Department of Craft/Material Studies, Clark crafts her sweet, provocative, small objects with her own black, curly, African-American hair--plaiting it, nesting it, crocheting it, twisting it. To that perfectly unique and personal medium she introduces beads, combs, silver, and pearls--each of which carry direct formal association with hair ornamentation--as well as some small sentimental components made of her mother's pale gray hair. Grantham has interspersed these reliquary mementos with some of the artist's large, clean, comparatively sanitized photographs, to convey a few scenarios where time and process are implicated in the exploration of the meaning of hair. These photographic works adjust and balance the gallery's environment, drawing it away from the past and toward the contemporary.

Loose Strands, Tight Knots is a loose continuum of things that cannot be shaken from their hold on generations, given that they are the cradle-to-grave concerns of motherhood and memory, mourning and mysticism, Clark's specific preoccupations.

Hair features heavily in both the Bible and the Quran, which proffer many rules on how it should be worn and when it should be shorn, particularly in respect to women. It is an indicator of beauty, emancipation, strength, and autonomy. A ruler's hair is long, a slave's is cropped. Nonetheless, mortality is always an underlying theme of hair, because it is the tapering human yardstick of one's days on Earth.

"Long Hair" is thus a photographic scroll that extends down the wall from the ceiling and rolls forward on the floor. Perhaps because you are so programmed to accept the visceral quality of Clark's hair by the time this piece is reached, it is hard not to believe that the extremely high resolution image on the pure white paper is not actually hair. On the other hand, it would be hard to accept that it could be. The image is calculated to replicate the length Clark's hair would have grown if she grew it for 100 years. It is a remarkable, brilliant work that echoes--if not the revisionist portrait of--her long coil of "Self Portrait 67," made of actual hair.

A second motif found in Clark's work is the hand. "Pearl of Mother" is one of Clark's hair works that remembers her mother in a precious whitish ball of her hair. It is cradled by the daughter's hand, sculpted in black hair. In "Offer," tiny hands on a cord, crocheted in colored beads, dangle acquiescently from a central point like a worn scapular to surround a small bowl. A third motif, the crown of the head, materializes as circles, crowns, and domes in other two- and three-dimensional pieces, most notably in the "Parted" series of photographs.

First breaking off all of the teeth of many cheap plastic combs, potentially in a gesture of revenge for all those thin fragile teeth that refuse passage through thickly resistant hair, Clark then gathers them into a perfect textural jumble in a circle on white paper for "Parted." She proceeds to divide this circle with her hand in four sequential shots that capture the eventual performance.

"Springy Pair," a central work in the installation, is a porcupine-esque couple of skull-like domes from which little hairlike structures explode. These fuzzy cornrow projectiles are made from black pipe cleaners rather than hair, but that isn't obvious until you read the label. The piece conveys the outward reach of ideas and influences, in the manner of fringe's original use in early cultures--to introduce and envision the physical integrating with the spiritual. "Springy Pair" is kind of a mascot for the show, as an ambassador of that dynamic. With its animated personality, underlying sense of joy, reverence for life, and inclination toward the mystical, it is the tight knot that gathers loose strands into its own cosmos and projects them outward again.

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