The whole drama of human history can be traced through fashion and fashions can be described by hair. Where would Cleopatra be without her bangs? What about Bettie Page? Samson went from giant to jellyfish when he lost his curly locks, and any boy or man who’s had a girlfriend or a wife suddenly cut or color her tresses knows the emotional upheaval that can be expressed in such a drastic shift in style. From Julius Caesar’s close-cropped cut to Britney Spears’ bald scalp, hair – and the lack of it – has power.
Photographer Rebecca Drolen is an assistant professor of art at Belmont University and her new exhibition at Gallery 121 in the Leu Center for the Visual Arts at Belmont offers a collection of objects and black-and-white images that are tangled up in the traditions of tresses and the history of hair. Hair Pieces asks questions about how hair figures in our conceptions of beauty and gender as well as its role in our shared cultural myths and ancestral memories.
Many of Drolen’s objects speak to the the kind of mourning jewelry that was popular at the end of the 19th century. During that time special lockets and picture frames were often made to contain a lock of hair from a deceased family member. A piece like “Tweezings” takes this idea to the extreme, displaying a pair of open lockets, one of which has about a foot of hair pouring out of it. This piece could be making a statement about how the dead live on in our memories with a grisly allusion to the contentious claims that the hair will continue to grow on the deadest of corpses. However, Drolen’s lighthearted titles don’t let us take these objects too seriously and they’re only allowed to take on more interesting resonances in their roles as props in Drolen’s fantastical narrative photographs.
Some of the best photos in the show deal with beauty and gender. “Hair Tie” features Drolen wearing chopped tresses, holding scissors and a comb. The hair she’s cut away has been fashioned into a braided necktie – the piece speaks to the bias that long hair is more “feminine” while also skewering business class values that allow women into the workplace as long as they can check their femininity at the door. “Longer Lashes” is another hyperbolic display like “Tweezings.” Here Drolen uses an old fashioned eyelash curler to horrific effect, creating a cascade of black curls winging out a foot from her eye. Here, the pursuit of beauty taken to the extreme is seen to be freakish and grotesque. But in “Drainage,” the off-putting sight of hair in the drain of the tub is taken to extremes in the other direction when a massive spill of sinewy locks cascades over the side of a tub and across a bathroom floor. The dark hair is highlighted by the white-walled interior and the sensual juxtaposition of the sinewy curls against the black and white grid of the tiled floor creates an effect that is positively painterly.
“Haircut” is a triptych that pictures Drolen wearing a thick braid that stretches across three separate photographs. In the last frame, a pair of hands – presumably the artist’s own – grasp at the rope of hair tug of war-style. In the first frame, Drolen raises a pair of grass clippers to the base of the braid, threatening to cut the long locks loose. The piece recalls the fairy tale character Rapunzel who grew her hair so long a prince was able to climb up it to rescue her from the tower where she was imprisoned. Drolen’s post feminist work makes little room for princes and a piece like “Haircut” speaks to liberating one’s self from the prison of one’s own old assumptions and expectations. Of course this would also make a great image in a glossy ad in a fashion magazine. I can read the copy now: “New ‘do? New You!”
Check out Hair Pieces at tomorrow night’s artist reception: Thursday, October 17, 5 – 7 P.M. Gallery talk at 5:30 P.M.