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Hairy situation

Video art show puts the focus on hair



ArtSpot may soon become the official home of Body Part Art. Its previous shows centered on vaginas and fingernails, and now there's a new one about hair.

While the naughty, naughty Software show reveled in the shock value of that scandalous forbidden zone, much of the work in The Hair Show: Video Hair Pieces feels flummoxed by that lack of sensationalism. The challenge of a thematic show like this hirsute one is how to represent a subject that can be both ordinary, even banal, but also socially and culturally loaded.

There is a lot of folklore surrounding hair, from Samson and Rapunzel, and a host of power, gender, race and class issues, from blonde jokes to the politics of dreadlocks. But Hair for the most part only skims the surface with too many works fixated on the familiar association that faces all of us each time we look into a mirror -- vanity. Neglecting other permutations of hair, such as pubes and eyelashes or taboos of back hair and female facial hair, Hair also has a surprisingly narrow focus, fixated almost exclusively on the hair on top of one's head.

Problems of quality are magnified by the format of choice here. Video can have a tendency, because of its accessibility and ease of use, to invite all players, and there is a fair amount of work in Hair that is annoyingly breezy and poorly conceived, which does a disservice to other pieces that demonstrate greater care and thought. Video also inspires many to use it for soul-baring confessions that tend to privilege narcissism over insight. Too much spontaneity and a lack of focus bog down both Robin Brasington's slapped-together and aptly titled "Concoction" and the equally frank but also off-putting "UnCut" by Alan Algee.

The better work in Hair Show tends to happen downstairs where a more thoughtful and inventive element predominates.

Taking a playful approach to the subject at hand, collaborators Kristen Gorell, Will Eccleston and Chris Downs' nicely mounted video substitutes "hare" for "hair" as it asks viewers to look down a literal rabbit hole of burlap and straw. In this short video, an encounter unfolds between a black-and-white rabbit and one of artist Eccleston's wacky clipper-style automated machines. Despite all of humankind's mechanical aplomb, the hare triumphs.

Oliver Smith presents the video diptych "Horror Vacui" as a kind of he said/she said fugue on the problem of hair. In Smith's survey of women seated in a hairdresser's chair, the artist distorts their faces into gargoyle masks, suggesting something of the contortions of beauty. Far more effective is Smith's absorbing treatise on male vanity and hair loss. Rogaine ads, shiny heads surveyed from every angle and Smith's quickly paced editing give a sense of escalating dread to the subject of baldness. A musical score with a steady, foreboding heartbeat effect underscores the elements of mortality and the symbolic loss of virility and sexuality associated with hair loss -- for many men their first encounter with the cruelty of a looks-based culture and a beauty industry that quickly jumps in to manipulate frail egos.

Trauma also defines Adam Overton's performance video "Hair. Ritual. No. 38" initially staged at Eyedrum and filmed by Blake Williams. As collaborator Robert Cheatham, dressed in suit and tie, reads a litany of self-doubt into a microphone with newscaster matter-of-factness, Overton begins to slowly clip his beard and hair using scissors and electric razors rigged up to a microphone to amplify the sound. As Overton shaves his entire face and head, that menacing over-amplification teases out the threat of violence underlying this everyday act.

But Overton's multi-faceted project entails much more, as seen in the self-damning, self-reproaching refrain read by the newscaster. "Hair. Ritual. No. 38" questions the complacent, spoiled comforts of our modern First-World self and becomes a gesture of penance for that remove from reality. The newscaster's words, which stand in for Overton's tortured thoughts, become like a religious incantation even as the act of shaving references comparable religious expressions of humility, denial and self-flagellation.

Though several other works, such as Max Gleason's clever stroke-fest investigating the erotic overtones of hair, bring an overall high technical quality to the show, the general sense of Hair Show is of too much vague or simply mediocre work that tends to bring the better, more thoughtful projects down to their level.


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