Anne Wilson

at Roy Boyd Gallery, through March 29

There is something both elegant and creepy about Anne Wilson’s I Cut My Hair series, on view together with her other new work at Roy Boyd Gallery. Great manes of human hair, tied at the top but spreading out quickly from the tie, are hung between two panes of glass enclosed in a steel frame. Each mane is almost four feet long, and each has a different color and a different “do.” In Raven Waves, deep black hair undulates in waves, while the hair in Crimson Dyed is mostly straight. But the crimson is an odd shade: a deep, ruddy red, it seems to gather light into it, as if it were secretly becoming black.

The six works in this series are hung on the gallery wall like paintings. In one sense they are: relatively flat, they can be read as “hair portraits,” each presenting a carefully constructed possibility for human hair. For despite the title, these are made objects–Wilson purchased this hair (all of it real human hair), tying shorter lengths together to create the full length and shaping the hair as well: in Raven Waves Wilson crimped it.

Each carefully shaped mass of hair has a certain stark beauty, an almost minimalist perfection of form. And the placement of the works side by side recalls the serial imagery of minimal and conceptual art. But each mass of hair is organic, unruly, filled with tiny random variations in direction. There’s a tension between the rectilinear formality of the framing, the simple shape of each piece, and the occasionally skewed directions of each strand.

This is only one of a bundle of contradictions this work suggests. The title implies that each mane is the product of a single haircut, yet even without knowing that the hair was purchased, the viewer will wonder if Wilson really found six people with hair that long. The hair is a three-dimensional object from the “real” world, but at the same time it’s been reduced to a “painting.” The title and the hair’s sensuousness suggest human life, while other factors–the fact that even “live” hair is dead, and the glass frames’ resemblance to museum specimen cases–suggest a collection of dead things.

It’s common for a modernist artist to produce an artwork that balances contradictory possibilities. Typically all the contradictions are equally balanced, and the work presents itself as a paradox. Wilson’s work never settles into one or the other of the polarities described–we simultaneously see these pieces as real hair and as faux paintings–but its powerful, almost quirky edge comes from the way the possibilities are so different from each other. This is far from the finely tuned, almost intellectual balance of a Cezanne.

Thus I was always first aware of each mane as “big hair”–almost aggressive in its assertion of sensuality. Its coolly minimal container seemed inadequate to contain it, and each began to take on some of the power of a fetish object. I found myself remembering the shrunken heads I’d seen in museums long ago–“cultural sensitivity” has caused most of them to be removed from display–because the hair on them often extends way below the head, even hiding it, and thus is the first thing to attract attention. Recalling that one purpose of head shrinking was to gain power by possessing another’s soul, I found myself reflecting on an added irony in the series title: If “I” cut “my” hair, what is Anne Wilson doing with it?

The transgressive quality of this series reappears in much of the other work in the exhibit. Wilson sets up conflicts between the natural and the man-made; between an artifact and its decay; between a sensual, three- dimensional object and a flat design; and between geometric ordering, organic asymmetries, and chaos. But though the viewer may be led from one possibility to its opposite, the work always tends toward the more unsettling and extreme of its possibilities.

Devour, for example, is a white table linen, approximately three feet square, whose border of embroidered white roses one hardly notices at first: this rather banal, predictable pattern is overwhelmed by the enormous mass of tangled red hair filling the blank center of the cloth, a woolly ball dense at the middle and splaying out into individual strands at the edges. Immediately evident are the contradictions between the linen’s regular weave and design and the hair ball’s chaos, the opposition between cloth made of plant fibers and the unruly hair that is humans’ principal “fiber.” But such intellectual niceties pale before the sight of the thing. The “devouring” of the title seems to be still happening, the hair at the ball’s edges reaching out to consume more and more of the well-ordered linen. It’s as if a central artifact of the bourgeois life-style were being eaten up by a living mass of hair. If the hair encased in the I Cut My Hair series is static, arranged, powerful only because of its length and sensuality, this hair has escaped all such taming; neither cut nor arranged, it continues to grow.

Central to Wilson’s aesthetic is a denial of the values artists often assign to things. Her art can’t be simplified to “organic is good, manufactured is bad.” Much of the beauty of the specimens in I Cut My Hair derives from the way the hair has been so precisely arranged; but the hair in Devour is frightening, gobbling up the bland linen. Anyone who’s ever genuinely experienced nature knows how scary it can be, and how readily it can consume any object made by humans.

Wilson, a professor in the fiber department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, had a mother who was an amateur painter and a grandmother who was a needleworker; she recalls growing up in a home filled with both textiles and painting. Perhaps the juxtaposition of the two during her childhood partly accounts for the way her work often straddles the border between them. She made art all through grammar school–she recalls string and cardboard pieces, puppets, more abstract works–and high school, and has degrees from art schools in Michigan and California. Coming of age amid the turmoil of the late 60s, she saw interactive multimedia performances, though she wasn’t a participant. There were other influences as well–technical instruction from a traditional weaver, and the emerging women’s movement, which helped validate nontraditional media such as fiber and textiles. But to my mind the most resonant reminder of her biography is the boundary-crossing quality of her work, recalling much 60s art. While 60s excess in the search for the chimera of complete freedom often led to a near-total dissolution of form, moments of lucidity in multimedia works suggested ways in which a live actor could resemble a film image, or a strobe a candle. In Wilson’s pieces, hair can seem dead, or alive; a work can be both painting and sculpture.

One consequence of Wilson’s boundary crossing is that no single name for her work–objects, images, textiles–seems adequate. “I don’t know what to call it,” she says. “They are basically 2 1/2-D–they use found objects but never exist fully in the round. So I think of them as physical drawings in hair and thread on cloth.”

The finest works in the show are the 62 small objects in the Areas of Disrepair series. These cloth squares are mounted four or five to a shelf; the shelves are numbered, but the individual pieces are unnamed.

The first two works Wilson made were white cloth fragments starting to come apart that Wilson tried to repair with black thread, but most of the cloth fragments have holes at their centers. The cloth comes from domestic linens and handkerchiefs obtained from Wilson’s family, flea markets, and other sources; the holes, according to Wilson, “were worn into the fabric from over use, uneven bleaching, burns, or exposure to acidic substances in storage.” Wilson then stitched in dark thread around the holes’ perimeters, not only accentuating each visually but fixing it as a hole. Rather than repairing the cloth, she freezes it in a state of disrepair. In most of the pieces, human hair has been stitched into the fabric around, and occasionally behind, the hole. The dark threads and hair serve as markers for the cloth’s deterioration: where the weave is weaker, the dark thread is thicker. In some pieces, the cloth nearest the hole is virtually covered with dark thread.

These works call forth many associations. Critic Kathryn Hixson mentions “metaphorically disembodied female genitalia, wounds or burns.” Wilson adds “botanical forms, microscopic specimen-like images, and other more abstract organic shapes.” Some, in which dotlike fragments of black thread grow denser closer to the hole’s boundaries, suggested to me astronomical nebulae.

But these are also pieces of cloth, about as close as our machine-made possessions come to the organic, which means they decay. The artist has attempted, with her needle and thread, to arrest that decay, to freeze it in time, while at the same time underlining in dark thread the particular shape of the decay. In this she’s doing what every visual artist who’s ever made an image of something organic also does–freezing it in its instant, capturing a trace of things that will inevitably become dust, an image to hold up against the ravages of time.

All but 11 of the pieces have unfilled holes at their centers, an emptiness that’s accentuated by the solid white of the shelf. Staring at this emptiness, one becomes aware that this void is the true record of time, the absence that’s the inevitable result of decay. Wilson’s tiny black threads around the hole are like a fragile dam holding back the sea–in one piece, the upper portion of the cloth is completely gone, leaving a “hole” whose upper boundary is defined by a single thread. There’s an eerie touch of the traditional vanitas painting in these works.

The presence of hair as well as thread adds an additional, messy element that undercuts any single interpretation: Wilson brings to the work not only human craft–her stitching–but the human body. The hair spreads out every which way; single hairs often stretch far beyond the fabric’s edges, projecting the piece into the surrounding space while invoking the body’s physicality. The rich interplay between the grid of the intact weave, the weave starting to fall apart, the thread used to repair the cloth, the hair, and the central hole creates a sense of whole different orders of objects–the geometrical machine-made, the handmade, the human body and its organic “chaos,” and the void left by decay. Like some works of non-Western art, these pieces seem to invoke the entire world.

With their striking mix of shapes, the Areas of Disrepair works are elegant and even oddly beautiful, precious aesthetic objects intended for the gallery. Yet the way they’re displayed, on slightly angled shelves, also suggests weird artifacts in a natural history museum. They can be taken, tongue in cheek, as actual attempts to repair cloth–or as little home sewing lessons. Viewed with only a little imagination, they might be talismans or fetish objects from some unknown civilization. That all of these are equally plausible possibilities is the works’ greatest strength. Despite the odd, somewhat discomfiting physicality they gain from hair and thread and fabric falling apart, they are also sui generis constructions, with no scenario to explain them. Their mystery and power come from the viewer’s sense of them as independent presences, each a complete little universe.