Force It Down: Harriet Burbeck at TEN Gallery

Perfectly timed for "(De)Tangled," Charlie Tatum reviews local artist Harriet Burbeck's "HairBall" exhibition at TEN Gallery.

Harriet Burbeck, Hair Dress 6, 2015. Ink on paper. Courtesy the artist.

Harriet Burbeck
TEN Gallery
4432 Magazine Street
May 2 - 31, 2015

In “HairBall,” Harriet Burbeck uses illustration to examine how we perceive hair. Hair is an integral part of our personalities and self-presentations, and Burbeck likens this to the ways in which we use clothing to define ourselves publicly. Many of the drawings depict hair as fashion and fashion as hair—a cloak draped over a woman’s shoulders, a hat knotted and tied from the up-do beneath it, the folds of a nineteenth-century dress melding into a young girl’s braids.

While Burbeck celebrates our potential to use hair to express ourselves, she acknowledges that we can’t escape the assumptions other people make based on our choices. The majority of Burbeck’s subjects are women, seemingly from the England of Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters, trapped by a world of finery and ornamentation. One can’t help but wonder how long these characters would have spent styling themselves to satisfy extravagant and absurd sets of expectations.

Burbeck’s delicate line work reminds us of the labor of self-presentation—a hairstyle is in fact an accumulation of individual strands, not simply an article of clothing we drape over ourselves in the morning. Her drawings are explicitly concerned with this materiality, with each line representing a discrete fiber. Cotton fabrics printed with Burbeck’s own designs emphasize this connection, serving as a backdrop for the works on paper.

The strongest pieces in “HairBall” are those that embrace this gross materiality of hair and take it one step further, playing up the tension between visual beauty and physical abjection. A group of works depicts teeth clenched around braids, mouths gagging on a mass of stringy hair. Another set of images shows a woman slurping up hair like spaghetti and a man seemingly vomiting wispy bangs from his open mouth. Literalizing the extent to which we internalize the outer world’s vision of our appearance, Burbeck suggests chewing and swallowing as one way to make sense of it all.

Harriet Burbeck, Dinner 2, 2015. Ink on paper. Courtesy the artist.