Nancy Buchanan at Charlie James

Nancy Buchanan, Hair portrait XCU, Crowning Glories, Charlie James Gallery; Image courtesy of the gallery

Nancy Buchanan: Crowning Glories

Charlie James Gallery, Chinatown
through August 29

Written by Shana Nys Dambrot
Hair is a tricky business. Sexy to the touch, gross in your food, nostalgic in a locket, evidence in an investigation, carrier of DNA, archetypal symbol in myth, legend, poetry, and fairy tale. A metaphor for power and potency, a metric of beauty, an opportunity for conformity and rebellion, a tool for creating, transforming and telegraphing personae, including gender identity. An evocative intimacy and a trillion-dollar industry. For women in particular it is all of this as well as a vessel of cultural agency and political expression. For artist Nancy Buchanan, hair has been her lexicon of image and actual material, as well as the motif of her performative narratives, for decades.

In the suite of pencil, ink, and pastel works on paper from the last five years — several of which as well as included sculptural works contain real hair as a material element — Buchanan considers heads of hair in a portrait style which features tresses rather than facial likenesses. Delicate, dense with mark-making and instantly recognizable despite their abstract aspects, most of the works are made on black paper with white pigment. The effect is to capture the lowkey radiance of a gorgeous coiffe, but with none of the usual signifiers of color or age that would distract and direct with implications of story. Despite the individual specificity of each portrayal, the diaphanous, alabaster glow and curvaceous lines and nested wisps have an idealized energy that encourages the dynamic of considering hair as a symbolic concept.

But the sudden presence of real hair in certain works quickly refocuses the mind on the literalism of the material, rooted, so to speak, in embodied, lived experience as well as the universe of notions. A sculpture of a cast resin brain filled with hair is both a good visual and verbal pun, and a nod to the amount of time people spend worrying about having, losing, keeping, changing, and perfecting their hair. The small (child-size) pink “cHair” sculpture draped and adorned with a lush auburn mane and fancy, lethal hair pin speaks to the ritualistic energy of hair-care, as well as the early age from which we start girls on this training course.

A salient “archive” section of the exhibition furthers this social critique take on the topic with coverage and documentation of Buchanan’s subversive, even transgressive, performance and installation-based works from across her career. Having shaved her own head and in other ways involved her own body in the proceedings, her work was also engaged with political action, environmental and economic justice, and non-violence. While it may not be immediately apparent what the link is between those heady happenings and the almost classical drawings, in fact they all exist on the continuum of the body — specifically its head of hair — as site, object, idea, and living force.

Charlie James Gallery
969 Chung King Road, Los Angeles, CA 90012

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