The Pollen Path
Building upon her sustained investigation of hair as a substance linked to rituals of femininity and the beauty industry, Monica Rezman’s recent body of work treats her signature motif in a more abstract manner. Hair, in these new works, is the basis for ruminations on organic processes, the nature of creativity, and the language of gestural abstraction.
Tangled masses of hair, rendered in charcoal, are stretched taut across horizontal expanses of paper, forming webs of interlaced threads punctuated by knotted clumps. At once soft and precise, charcoal, in Rezman’s hands, captures the texture and feel of hair to such a degree that it provokes a visceral response in the viewer. Hair is a substance that evokes feelings of intimacy and familiarity while at the same time having the capacity to repulse. While in her previous drawings the dark strands are isolated against a blank background, in the current works they expand to fill the sheet, proliferating alongside colored shapes, patterns, and streamers. In certain passages, the hair itself becomes an armature for colored facets, like the leading of stained glass. The result is optical confusion, whereby the hair is at once outline and object, appearing alternately in front of the colored forms or fused with them. The indeterminacy of figure and ground, and the all-over calligraphic composition invites a comparison to abstract expressionism, and specifically Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings and Willem de Kooning’s black and white abstractions of the late 1940s. The tangible association of hair prevents Rezman’s works from being fully abstract, infusing the traditionally masculine and spiritual pretensions of action painting with feminine and bodily dimensions.
By arranging trompe l’oeil hair into configurations that resemble gestural abstraction, Rezman calls attention to the role of the body in this style of painting, which has often been described in terms of life forces of creation and destruction. The titles of her works, drawn from botany and biology (“Double Fertilization” and “Algeny”) as well as from Navajo mythology (“The Pollen Path”) encourage us to read the repeating arabesques and multiplying patterns in terms of organic propagation. “Algeny,” a term coined in the 1980s to liken genetic engineering to alchemy, refers to the fact that for the first time in history, humanity is able to transform living material at the genetic level. Unlike the open lacework of hair that fills the works on paper, the canvases titled Algeny depict closed forms that might be read as organisms of sorts, cobbled together from
fragments of Rezman’s hair drawings and painted shapes. In their art historical allusions to the generative painterly gesture, layered with references to modern science, this body of work provokes us to think about the concept of creativity in a world in which science has allowed man to redesign nature as never before.
The stacks of polygons in Rezman’s Algeny paintings take on sculptural dimensions in her most recent works, migrating from the flat space of the canvas to the real space of the room. Variously painted solid colors or sprouting snarled masses of charcoal hair, Rezman’s new paper constructions appear as prototypes of some mysterious creature with both robotic and organic components. These hairy, geometric figures are almost always upright and composed of at least three segments, which might stand for a head, thorax, and tail. As hybrids of painting, drawing, and sculpture, they recall Minimalist objects of the 1960s, which similarly challenged traditional definitions of artistic media. They also employ a Minimalist language based in hard-edge shapes and uninflected expanses of color. However, Rezman eschews the repetitive elements and machine-made materials of Minimalism, preferring irregular polyhedrons piled up precariously and the most fragile of materials, paper. A sense of contingency is amplified in a set of constructions that Rezman displays scattered across the floor rather than stacked, as if one of the towers had toppled. This haphazard arrangement, or breakdown of geometry, is echoed in the disorderly swirls of hair that populate the surfaces of each structure, and conjures Postminimalist works of the 1970s. If Minimalist artists adopted the rationality of industrial processes, and Postminimalist artists embraced the chaos of natural ones, Rezman’s constructions combine and conflate both approaches, as appropriate to contemporary times when humans have the capacity to engineer nature.
Through the suggestive motif of hair, Monica Rezman explores conceptions of femininity, beauty, and the body. Hair, in her drawings and photographs, is always either severed from its human subject or fully engulfing her, producing a visceral response that verges on the uncanny—that aesthetic emotion whereby something deeply familiar is experienced as foreign and strange. Hair, a most intimate and familiar material, becomes alien and uncomfortable when seen in isolation or in unnaturally copious amounts.
In meticulous, trompe-l’oeil charcoal drawings, clumps of tangled, dark strands are shown pinned like scientific specimens against sterile white backgrounds upon which they cast delicate shadows. Uncanny effects are often produced when one is unable to distinguish between the real and the imaginary, a confusion which arises upon first encountering these drawings. Their illusionism is such that viewers might at first wonder if they are looking at real human hair. Detached from any human subject, these hairpieces take on a life of their own. They expand into intricate mesh and contract into dense, hanging, bundles. They curl and contort like octopi, or gracefully pirouette like puffs of smoke. Hair transforms more fully into an autonomous creature in a series of photodrawings featuring piles of hair in laid in a bed. The largest pile forms a head of sorts, resting on a pillow, while little tufts are tucked into wrinkled white sheets.
Rezman became fascinated by hairpieces as objects of adornment, a context that she explores further in her photographs. While the drawings are concrete and realistic, the photographs become fantastical and surreal through drawn-in additions of hair. A sprite-like young girl leaps and prances with heaps of hair piled atop her head, its snarled masses flying wildly through the air. Rather than appearing heavy and constricting, these monumental wigs seem a source of freedom and play. In other images, the girl is seated with an abundance of hair swallowing up her little body, suggesting either a nurturing cocoon or suffocating prison. And in yet another, titled Woolgatherer, her hair becomes a source of labor, gathered into a giant ball of yarn that she knits into a mysterious garment. Rezman, who was a clothing and textile designer prior to studying fine art at the Florence Academy of Art in Italy and the School of Representational Art in Chicago, is particularly fascinated by the way in which women transform and express themselves through their beauty routines. As indicated by the images of her daughter, Rezman’s understanding of such routines is complex and ambivalent, seeing them as potentially oppressive or liberating.
In a related body of photodrawings, Rezman investigates the human labor involved in the production of hairpieces—a theme hinted at whimsically in the image of the young girl as woolgatherer. To these documentary images of the sorting and processing of hair in a factory in India, she adds gratuitous quanties of drawn-in hair, again blurring the boundaries between the real and the fictional, and amplifying the grotesque quality of her subject. Such factories purchase hair from Hindu temples, where children and adults alike participate in the ritual of head shaving, an act that symbolizes the abandonment of vanity and is performed to offer respect and gratitude to the gods. In the space of the factory, their sacrifice becomes the object of others’ vanity. A part of the human body is literally objectified, transformed into a commodity.
Abstracted into evocative patterns that become Rorschach blots for our own projections, isolated and imbued with a life of its own, amalgamated for the amusement of a vivacious female subject, or multiplied for mass-processing by factory workers, hair is a material rife with metaphors, cultural connotations, and sheer visual impact in Rezman’s practice. Woolgathering once literally referred to the process of gathering wool from sheep, but is more commonly used today as a figurative expression for the indulgence in wandering thoughts and daydreams. As a title tying together Rezman’s current body of work, it functions in both senses: the gathering of human hair for the production of wigs and hair extensions is a literal form of wool-gathering, and the bodily transformation allowed by these hairpieces is certainly steeped in drifting thoughts and fanciful wishes.