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Hair Piece: "Blind Lines"

Gabriel de la Mora collects locks for his art

In the 19th century, locks of hair from the living and the dead were considered sentimental mementos. Hair was placed in lockets, woven into jewelry and made into artwork. People of the period viewed these items as tokens of affection and remembrance. But today, hair has vastly different connotations. In the 21st century, collected strands of hair are more often than not associated with DNA analysis for a crime lab or paternity test. Hair is a carrier of our most basic identity — our genetic identity. Mexican artist Gabriel de la Mora uses hair in his art, blending past and present associations with the material. His work is on view in "Blind Lines" at Sicardi Gallery.

In an earlier series of works, de la Mora employed hair to create portraits of his father. The artist used it as a drawing material, using single strands of hair to make each line. De la Mora has an extensive collection of hair gathered from friends, acquaintances and relatives; he collects it in jars labeled with the name of the donor and the date and location of the haircut. In his current exhibition at Sicardi, the work is more abstract, but it's still intended as portraits of individuals. Each piece uses hair from a single person.

For M.E.T.A.M. I and M.E.T.A.M. II, the woman's gray hair has been carefully knotted into ethereal, cloud-like forms. One rests on a dark background, while another rests on a white background. The two are presented on a pedestal in acrylic boxes, like reliquaries. They look elegant, but when you think about it, the delicate, fluffy clouds of hair aren't that far removed from a hair ball; they are just more carefully and minimally constructed. All of de la Mora's hair works are encased in acrylic boxes. The acrylic protects fragile works, but it also isolates the hair, allowing the viewer to closely observe it through a barrier. I don't know how many people share the Victorians' affection for disembodied hair, but hair carefully arranged and contained in a box is different from a pile of it swept up from the bathroom floor.

Armando Ignacio Silva Vicencio II (2008) presents enlarged hair drawings of the subject's fingerprints. His hair has been painstakingly glued to the paper, delineating the ridges and whorls of his prints, another individual marker of identity. The lines look for all the world like the product of some super-fine-point Rapidograph, but when the paper is viewed from the side, the tiny pieces of hair appear as a flattened stubble.

The DNA-laden hair reads formally in many of the works as faint lines stitched or glued into and onto surfaces. Fine Agnes Martin-like horizontal lines move across surfaces, but their contemplative precision is broken as the strands of hair spring wildly into the air or trail off the canvas, unruly and unkempt. In one work, hair sticks up from the surface of the paper in parallel lines, like two long rows of ­eyelashes.

De la Mora has another, albeit hairless, body of work based on individuals. The artist met with and interviewed sightless people at a center for the blind in Mexico City. Armando Ignacio Silva Vicencio (2008) is a "portrait" created for the same individual who was the subject of the fingerprint piece. Vincencio is a 24-year-old man who was blinded by drinking bootleg alcohol containing methanol.

De la Mora sought to create a tactile, abstract "portrait" of Vicencio. Working in the dark, de la Mora scrunched and creased black plastic trash bags, backing them with tape to flatten them and hold the wrinkles in place. In the light, he then stretched the sheet of garbage bags over a plywood panel, revealing the textures taped into the plastic. But before attaching the sheet, Mora adhered an envelope to the backside. Hidden underneath the finished portrait, the envelope contains photographs of Vicencio, a lock of his hair and the artist's handwritten notes about his subject. De la Mora showed the portrait to Vicencio, who added his fingerprints to it as he explored the textured surface of the work.

A black plastic garbage-bag painting doesn't seem like an especially promising art strategy, but the finished work is oddly engaging. Light strikes the folds and creases of its dark surface, creating intricate patterns. You can imagine what the surface would feel like under your fingers, but you can't touch it. In a related series of small works, pieces of brightly colored vinyl were stuck to pieces of paper. Their glossy, wrinkled surfaces are slick and appealing, but encased in acrylic and impossible to touch. Again, the works are portraits, this time based on the remembered favorite colors of individuals who lost their sight later in life.

The idea that the artist is creating a portrait of a blind individual is not apparent when you view these works. Even more so than in the case of the hair works, you would have no way of knowing the idea behind the art unless you were told. De la Mora has devised strategies for creating nonobjective paintings, and the results are visually interesting whether or not you know the back story. In the hair works, the subjects are literally part of the piece; in the plastic series, the relationship seems a little more awkward.

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