The Head and the Heart: Art of the Body and Soul
By Genie Davis
Through April 10th
Los Angeles-based artist Siobhan Hebron has created a passionate exhibition based on her own personal reality in The Head and the Heart, now on display through April 10th at the Hoyt Gallery in the USC Keck School of Medicine.
Hebron’s oeuvre has changed radically in the last two years. Her work was primarily based in painting until the summer of 2014, when a diagnosis of brain cancer brought about a new artistic and personal form of expression. In the Keck exhibition, she is offering a unique multi-media experience, one that encompasses her personal experience of cancer as well as a wider scope that embraces a feminist social practice in regard to illness, chronic conditions, disability and ableism, and the female body. Hebron believes that a radically honest dialogue is an absolute necessity to change social and cultural perceptions about health and illness.
Curator Ted Meyer says Hebron’s show is one in a 6 year curation project for him. “I’ve developed the project as Artist in Resident at UCLA, and now at USC, where I give artist-patients shows at local medical schools. My hope with this project is to allow medical school students to see their patients as people with lives and interests, not just as a pile of symptoms.”
In this show, Hebron’s work and life pulses with the energy of her new exploratory period. The artist notes the changes both in her personal life and health, and in her work, and what these changes have brought about.
“Performance is the medium I feel most engaged by now. During my initial diagnosis and hospitalization, things that were obviously so routine for doctors were completely otherworldly to me. Everything truly felt like a ready-made performance, and to this day a lot about medicine feels theatrical. Video and visual documentation are of interest to me as well, more than they were before. I think it comes down to mediums that are more direct in their subject; mediums where my body is present in real time or space are just more appropriate for my post-diagnosis work,” Hebron says.
Most of the images in The Head and the Heart have never been printed before. “This current exhibition is actually the first time I’ve seen all the work I’ve made since my diagnosis in one place. Seeing everything together as a holistic body of work was really meaningful,” Hebron explains. “I love that medical students will pass by images of me taking my chemo, or of the hair that I lost; the real daily experiences of a person with cancer, and not just a faceless patient in the system. I think simply it’s this presentation of my images that best expresses my personal concerns, i.e. positioning the sick woman’s body as a visible, vital, and present body.”
Certainly the images in the show vitally engage viewers: we are seeing an actual woman as well as a profoundly meticulous artist, and viewing the force in which the artist and woman together are fighting not only for personal health, but for a broader sense of health and wellness, illness and understanding.
Hebron is extremely interested in the idea of visibility, both of illness itself and the experience which it creates.
“The overwhelming need in our culture to be positive leads to oppressing true physical and emotional ailments, often times to the point where it then becomes too late to do something,” Hebron relates. “This is especially true for women, and even more so for any woman that is not cis, straight, or white. If anything, I hope that my work can go towards normalizing illness. Bringing it into everyday conversation, almost in the way people talk about getting the flu. If more people would be willing to engage in a conversation about cancer, or AIDS, or any serious, chronic illness with as much openness and empathy as they do the common cold, that would lighten the burden of living as a sick person immensely.”
Hebron’s exhibit at Keck features work from several series documenting her experience with chemo, as well as images and text from past performances, drawings, and a new, large scale public participatory work. Also on display are works by Samantha Chau, Steven Park and Melanie Sweeney.
“I want people, and again especially women, to know that their own experiences are valid and worth talking about and deserve to be heard and seen,” Hebron notes.
The exhibition acutely expresses the artist’s personal journey in an intimate and revealing series of images. Take “Chemo Valentine no. 7 (Pain and Pleasure),” which pairs Valentine colored images of a rosy “pocket rocket” with a bottle of Temozolomide capsules. The color, the crispness, and the honesty of her images startles and seethes with energy and meaning.
“I have to say I’m really proud of this exhibition and what I’ve been able to create. It’s emotional to look back over the work and remember what was happening to my body when I made it, or the frame of mind I was in at the time. The last few years have been the hardest of my life and overwhelmingly negative, so I find it encouraging to see what I’ve been able to generate and create out of something so dark,” Hebron says. “I want the viewer/reader to know that mine is one version of the cancer experience; that cancer and illness in general is never black and white, but many variations of gray. There is no one way to look sick, or be a patient, or process an illness, and by acknowledging these individual and varied experiences we can start to change the existing language and dialogue around illness that is so problematic and homogenizing.”
Her powerful work is both beautifully done and galvanizingly intense. If you or a loved one have experienced any illness – or even if you have not – the exhibition is incredibly moving. Hebron provides a way to own illness and treatment, to not allow illness to dominate a creative conversation and spirit. Passionate and proud, Hebron’s work here is a vital component of emotional healing.
The Hoyt Gallery is located in the basement of the Keith Administration Building on the USC campus. There will be a Q&A with the artist March 21 at noon. More information.