Surprise! There’s human hair on display in “Parsing Sign and Image,” a diverse group exhibition of mixed-media art juried by Artscope Magazine’s founder and publisher, Kaveh Mojtabai, that engages with the complex theme of image-communication. The exhibition asks: Can a text itself stand as an image, or will our minds always connect to a literal meaning? Must a word always carry meaning, or can words and letters act as graphic elements of pattern and design?
The show’s exhibition statement responds, then asks more questions: “Images can stand alone without relying on a literal translation. Today our visual fields are filled with imagery (from television to Instagram) and a literate mind unconsciously reads text without considering it. You don’t have to tell yourself to read a stop sign — you just do. From road signs and graffiti to pop-up ads and text messages, we are constantly and instantaneously ingesting language and its message. How does the involuntary practice of reading, translating, influence the artistic practice?”
As the juror, Mojtabai was charged with the difficult task of bringing together a collection of art that demonstrates diversity in materials and form, reflecting text, symbols, language, phrases and more with visual imagery that communicates the human condition, all within a subject that is in itself challenging to define concretely because it deals with principles within semiotics and language interpretation. Because of this, almost any work of art could fit the exhibition theme.
“The work in the show reveals a pattern of our internal restless headspace of words and symbols, our daily personal interactions of beauty, color, balance and darkness all trapped within our present society in a state of propaganda, entertainment, dualism, confusion, insecurity and upside-down decay,” he noted in the information-packed exhibition booklet.
With the above understanding in mind, how does human hair fit into the context of communication? Is hair a stand-alone symbol, sign and object infused with meaning?
The work in question, a mixed-media assemblage called “American Spirit,” by Michael Pribich, is possibly the best work in the exhibition because it engages with, and breaks out from, the strict subject definition. One of its main components is long black hair, and the other is cartons of American Spirit cigarettes. “This artwork is a meditation on the words American Spirit as seen in the popular cigarette brand,” Pribich wrote.
“While enduring mass extermination in our country, Native Americans continue to flourish here. Their imagery is used commercially in popular culture to sell products. The tobacco plant is sacred to Native Americans. Hair is used symbolically to reference power and eternal life.”