Spencer Merolla: Death in the Living Room / by Heather Topcik

Before meeting artist Spencer Merolla, I knew nothing of hairwork. The art of weaving human hair (ideally that of a loved one, living or deceased) into intricate adornment, to be worn or displayed in the home, originated in the late 18th century. It reached its apotheosis in the Victorian era, when sentimentality reigned and death and mourning were not subjects to be avoided.  Pins, wreaths, and buttons, among other decorative objects made with hair, were seen as proper expressions of emotion, particularly grief. For a widower to keep his watch on a chain made of his wife's hair was a customary way to signal that he was in mourning, to make visible the anguish of his interior life.

Living at a time when the average lifespan was 50 years and half of the children born didn't live to adulthood, the Victorians naturally excelled at commemorating death and grieving. In contrast, people in modern Western society typically recoil from the subject of death. Victorian sentimentality has long since given way to a post-industrial obsession with hygiene that regards human hair -- especially when it is no longer attached to its host -- with revulsion.

In her new series of work incorporating human hair, Spencer Merolla confronts these contemporary taboos. Now on exhibition at the Society for Domestic Museology -- and appropriately titled “Death in the Living Room” -- the work resurrects the emotional power in this bygone material culture of death and remembrance.

We marked the installation of the series in July with an intimate opening reception inspired by traditional Victorian funerary feasts. The menu included tomato aspic, roast beef, and Yorkshire pudding, with gin punch and raspberry shrub to drink. Dessert was gooseberry fool and Victorian funeral biscuits, which were often given out to mourners (along with schnapps) at the end of a funeral.  As we dined on 19th-century delicacies, we gathered in our living room to hear Spencer talk about the history of Victorian hairwork and her research on mourning customs that have informed this body of work.

On display are two pieces of hairwork in the living room and a set of four works on paper in the hallway. Upon first glance, the hairwork appears to have more in common with the modernity of Chuck Close or Bradley Hart than the overwrought sensibility of Victorian fancywork. The piece entitled M.L. is a pixelated portrait of a woman (identity unknown or unacknowledged) that could be anyones beloved.  Close up, you can see that each pixel is a square unit of human hair painstakingly (is there any other way?) arranged with acrylic medium into individual cells.  This labor-intensive process, a meditation in grief, connects this work to its historical counterparts while creating a new vocabulary of hairwork altogether.

 

The pendant work, entitled Recombined, is an abstract braided form that refers more overtly to human hair. But as with the portrait, one has to look closely to see the texture and variation that makes it hairwork and nearly impossible to recreate in a photo.  

What I find most compelling about these pieces (along with Spencer’s other hairwork, which you can see here) is the intersection of digital technology and manual artistry. While many of Spencer’s designs are first worked out on the computer, the execution of the work is as delicate and methodical as its historical antecedent. It involves painting small swatches of hair onto art board, cutting them into pieces, and arranging them into the mosaic design.  Hair itself, organic and unruly, is a challenging material that reacts to heat and humidity just as it does when it grows out of your head.

The meditative process of working with hair in this manner evokes the melancholy of its origins and the intimacy of working with the hair of a loved one. The finished product is an outward demonstration of that feeling. Spencer’s work, however, removes the personal connection: the work uses anonymously donated hair fashioned into a portrait of an anonymous woman. Mourning and sentimentality become abstract, as if in rebuke to our contemporary insistence on keeping death at a safe and sanitary remove.

Indeed, a lot of our conversation that evening was about rituals of mourning in contemporary American culture, how incoherent and discomfiting they can be. The Victorians may have had too heavy a hand in prescribing appropriate demonstrations of grief and mourning, current customs seem to lack any guidance at all. Outside of particular religious frameworks, there really isn't a normative understanding of what it means to grieve.

Spencer's works on paper deal with similar themes. Made of acrylic on paper, the series is a subtle study in geometric form that can only be truly seen as it interacts with light. At first glance, each frame appears to be painted a matte black. But as you move past each frame, the light interacts with the shapes creating a dynamic animation of sorts. Though shrouded in black, the work starts to come to life -- but only briefly. If hairwork is a visceral meditation on the reality of grief and mourning, the work on paper is its counterpart, a study in life's ephemerality and the fleeting nature of time. So ephemeral, in fact, that it has proven difficult to photograph.  It is work that must be experienced in person.  And if you would like to see it for yourself, contact me to arrange an appointment.  

It has taken me a long time to write about this exhibition of Spencer's beautiful and compelling work. Although the opening was a celebratory occasion and an opportunity to talk openly about a subject fraught with fear and sadness, maybe I was avoiding the discomfort of confronting such unpleasant ideas. But death is simply unavoidable. Weeks after the opening, as I finally sat down to collect my thoughts, I learned that a friend who had been there that night had died unexpectedly, giving my perspective on this work a new and personal dimension.

 I have found that living with these pieces has been a comforting meditation on the fleeting nature of time, and also on the importance of memory. To my own sensibility, the Victorian aesthetic of overwrought sentimentality, particularly in their hairwork, appears almost insincere, but its emphasis on memorializing a loved one is something universally relatable.  Spencer's modern hairwork, minimal in its ornamentation and anonymous in both the materials and subjects, strips away this layer of the sentimental and asks us to really consider the universality of grief that lies underneath.