Facial Hair: Self Portraits

by Dena Shottenkirk

Fetishizing hair as a primary vehicle for sexual attraction is an ancient practice, but one which has perhaps reached its apogee in our modern era. Thanks to chemistry, hygiene, and advertising, hair care is as central to civilized behavior as is literacy. Dirty hair, greasy hair, or generally un-cared for hair (this excludes the deliberately and stylishly unkempt hair-do’s) is almost entirely absent from our current culture, as much of a social blunder as going barefoot or exuding foul body odor.

Julie McConnell makes photographs that exemplify this obsession by both indulging the image of the glorious head of hair and, simultaneously, debasing such hair by having it serve as an ashtray. With cigarette butts scattered indelicately amidst the abundant spread of hair, the image denies itself. This negation is further complicated by the formal trick of doubling the image, where McConnell makes a Rorschach-like creation, each half being an identical version of the other. The blonde hair spreads like a splattered egg across the field of the picture, filling up the image with complex weavings of yellow, white, and reddish lines in a chaos reminiscent of abstraction expressionist work. But this is not really about abstraction as we notice the extremely explicit content of the hair juxtaposed with the embedded cigarette butts: vilified, debased, and transgressed, the welcoming spread of hair – passively laid across the picture plane – has changed into it’s opposite. It is not welcoming, not passive, not sensuous. The viewer is caught between the subject’s humiliation and the slightly comic point of a hair-ashtray. And both points deny seduction even as the sexual abounds.

Another dimension to the imaging process is the appearance of animal faces in the middle of the Rorschach image. Playing on the symmetry of facial construction, the hair patterning when doubled maps out bizarre facial images: eyes , nostrils, and both sides of a mouth appear in the center of each mass of streaming hair, giving another layer of surreal and creepy meaning to the pieces. What initially looked beautiful reveals a seemingly symbiotic relationship between human and animal rife with hostility. Like a date gone bad, these luscious spreads of hair now sprout bewildered and threatening animals from their splayed center.

In conjunction with these images, McConnell produces photographs of close-ups of a tongue pushing through a cosmetic tissue. Not recognizable for what it is, the images still retain a biomorphic character – it is obviously something organic, something perhaps from the inside of one’s body, or at least an orifice. One is simultaneously drawn to and repelled by these tongue pictures; a vacillating response not unlike the response elicited from the hair photographs.

But this is of course the central point. McConnell’s photographs traffic in that kind of ambivalence. The habit of looking, of being seduced, of being pulled into the promising sensuousness of a picture is simultaneously denied by the socially unacceptable repulsiveness of some of its parts. We are embarrassed by our looking, our desiring. What initially seemed like an easy triumph of voyeuristic peeking, has turned into something perverse and defiling. As a comment on the false promises of beauty, it is devastating.