In the most scientific terms, hair is just protein filaments that grow outward from follicles deep within the skin. It spans most of the body’s surface area, proliferates most visibly from our scalps, and serves a number of biological purposes, most notably heat regulation.

Why, then, have these strands of keratin remained such a subject of intense aesthetic, societal, and mythological fascination over the course of human history?

This is the quandary that the new exhibit at the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art, Hair on Fire, seeks to explore, and ultimately does so quite successfully. Mark Sloan, the curator of the show and Halsey director, has once again brought together a talented cast of multimedia artists, all female, who each brings her own regional and cultural experience, as well as artistic proclivities, to the question of hair.

As promised, the exhibit includes an interactive element via the work of Caryl Burtner, who displays her obsessive-compulsive flair for collecting artifacts of human existence in “Hair” (1978-2009). Thirty samples from Burtner’s archives hang in plastic baggies. Each is dated and contains a cut-out photograph of its progenitor. While surveying these specimens feels mundane at first, one starts to develop an unsettling sense of voyeuristic intimacy. We have no idea who these people are, yet we have the opportunity to be close to a physical piece of them. The viewer is invited to move a step further, becoming part of Burtner’s project by donating a lock of their own — clippers provided.

Not all the work in the show uses hair as a direct medium. Ruth Marten’s five whimsical watercolor paintings depict hair in various lengths, colors, and textures, as abstracted figures unto themselves or unreal arrangements atop a human head. Her interest in the overwrought detail of classic Dutch still-life painting is belied in “Kaatje” (2003), a naturalistic rendering of what appears to be a female hairdo piled high above the unseen face. The hair is woven into a basket-like construction with a jarring skull at its center, overwhelming the symbolic fecundity of the resigned rabbit to the skull’s right. Near the bottom of the watercolor is what appears to be a wedding cake-topper with a bite taken out of the female component. Whether intentionally or not, the painting seems like a wry commentary on how a woman’s excessive attention to appearance and the male attention it hopes to attract can be fatal to the woman’s metaphysical being.

The intricate hair sculptures and installations by Althea Murphy Price, while less compelling in content, are nonetheless admirable in their painstaking craftsmanship. Talia Greene’s series of altered Victorian prints use swarming flies as a metaphor for the often unmanageable nature of hair. While visually amusing, they stand out as less integrated within the show. Loren Schwerd’s collection of sculptures replicating actual buildings dilapidated in the wake of Hurricane Katrina attempts to explore the intricacies of politics and racism in modern Louisiana, but ultimately falls short of its worthy intentions.

The most memorable artist of the exhibit is Sonya Clark, whose work manages to feel intense, charged with significance, yet simultaneously humble and tender. Clark cites her interest in hair as a source of power (think Samson) as well as the “essence of identity,” carrying each person’s identity as uniquely as a fingerprint.

Hair has also, at times, been a point of controversy within the African-American community, where the debate whether to keep it natural or alter it to fit “majority” norms has caused contention. In her pieces, Clark celebrates the unaltered quality of African-American hair, upholding it as an ancestral connector through not only color and quality, but also DNA.

Clark’s smallest but sweetest work is “Pearl of Mother” (2006). A doll-sized hand made from Clark’s dark brown hair cups a perfect little sphere fashioned of her mother’s gray and white hair. One has the sense that the artist’s creating hand could not exist without the initial biological “creation” of Clark via her mother. As the artist has grown older, her mother has come to symbolize wisdom, particularly the acceptance of the onward flow and change of life. She looks peacefully toward her future, in which her hair, like our own, will fade into its own distinguished shade.

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