Sonafeld (Cathy Ward)

Hair as Text

Cathy Ward ’s impossibly detailed scratchboard drawings of mounds, waves, and curlicues of human hair conflate a historically informed twenty-first century art practice with a nineteenth century eccentricity, fusing it into a seamlessly unified field of locks and tresses. Hair is one of the most fetishized parts—certainly the most publicly fetishized part—of the human body. It is molded, edited, removed, extended, and orchestrated into a three-dimensional sculptural signal encompassing all manner of personal, social, political, sexual, and spiritual information about its [flesh] pedestal From Samson to Rapunzel, mythology and folklore are rife with examples of the coiffure as portent, and anyone who lived through the 60’s and early 70’s knows the depth and intensity of import that can be gleaned from just a couple of inches of the stuff.

Hair’s capacity to act as signifier derives largely from its metaphorical relationship to text—as an accumulation of linear expressions from the inner body to the outside world, dead records marking time in direct proportion a certain amount of lived experience = a certain amount of hair growth, almost like a diary. But its OK to cut it if you think its confusing] to lived experience, chronicling entire periods of our lives in a few subtle and ephemeral twists. This ephemerality emphasizes that hair’s linguistic model is that of the oral tradition: Hair signals must be continually maintained, and they are constantly subject to elaboration or modification. Documentary media may record one moment of a constantly evolving language, but fixing the language itself is a trickier proposition.

Ward’s work is partially rooted in the obsessive eulogization seen in Victorian hair wreaths —where the grief of the bereaved is methodically, laboriously recoded into a narrative artifact, a mandala woven from the linear detritus of the loved one’s life, making contained, cyclical sense out of a suddenly truncated storyline. In Ward’s methodically delineated vistas, no such tidy resolution is sought, at least not as a final form. Instead, elaborate ornamental knots emerge from a chaos of uncensored follicle transmissions—allowing the rational, Apollonian impulse its place but refusing to identify it as The Source.

Ward’s work also transcends the metaphorical in two directions—towards the literal, in the drawings that impose or extract no imagery beyond the all-over horror vacuii of hair as hair; and towards the transpersonal, where improbable, symbol-laden dream vistas emerge from the tangled skeins. These landscape and architectural fantasies reunite hair as a textual medium with the preverbal psychic roots of story. Like an eidetic memory of a twilight vision glimpsed through the cascades of a mother’s or lover’s tresses, the vista opens upon mystery, miraculously transcending the awkwardness that should come with such a translation, yet inextricably entrenched in mammalian physiology.

Published in "Drawing Papers 47: Talespinning" The Drawing Center 2004