BRITTANY SCHALL: ARTIST NARRATIVE
On the genesis of her work Hair Portraits
Brittany Schall, a visual artist based in New York City, contributes the featured art for Grimoire’s inaugural issue. These pieces are from her series Hair Portraits, a body of work which explores, in her words, how “the most subtle nuances of hair communicate who we are—or maybe more importantly, who we attempt to be,” and feature women or mythological female figures who have often been “subdued by misogyny or a patriarchy.” In the narrative that follows, Schall relates to Grimoire the confluence of interests and circumstances that led to the work’s creation.
So transport yourself to 2008, a few months before the economic crash rattled the deep pockets of the NYC art collectors. I had just moved from Colorado right after I graduated and had created a series of works based off of decaying industrial sites. I was a stickler for perfection and detail. I had been to the city only twice, once my senior year for a weekend and the spring break before I graduated college. I loved it and moved immediately after school. I lived in a closet in Bed Stuy off of Franklin and Gates, then relocated to the southern Bronx off of Lincoln and 3rd Ave.
The Chelsea Art Mall was thriving and the majority of notable artists were selling their work enough not to do it themselves—meaning a good percentage of them hired other artists (aka "assistants") to paint/sculpt/draw their work and the artist would put a few tiny touches on the work along with their name. Jeff Koons and Thomas Kinkade are the most well known artists who do this; it's a bit morbidly funny that Kinkade is still producing so many works (including cabin replicas from his paintings) because he has been working from the grave since 2012. Other artists outright just ship images to China to have them produced cheaply — we all know the whopping $15 an hour without benefits I was making in NYC was just too criminally high. While working in artist studios (can't say who because you have to sign a nondisclosure), everyone told me that I had fantastic technique, but I didn't work fast enough. I decided if I could draw hair perfectly and quickly, I could do anything, so I started sketching.
After the economy tanked and bailouts were being thrown out like cheap t-shirts by a dancing mascot, no one was buying art, and I lost my job. My roommate — we'd met in junior high — had evolved into my boyfriend. He was an actor and worked for a dog-walking company in the West Village; he then decided to go independent and start his own company. At the time I had picked up a few days at a couture purse store in SoHo and was assisting installation artists. I offered to help him and we started our own dog-walking company, which was great for the first few months. Then we started boarding the dogs in our teacup-sized one-bedroom apartment, which was a 4th floor walk up. Pretty soon our home was overrun with dogs—about 4 - 9 dogs at a time, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. I stopped drawing because I only had time to walk dogs and became deeply depressed. The goal was to have a flexible job so if need be, my boyfriend could go to auditions and I could assist other artists. But I was blindsided by the situation I found myself in; I felt like a complete failure and my hopes of being an artist began to be extinguished. I wanted to disappear. I gave up on making large pieces because the dogs would either knock the drawings over, or shake rain and slobber over them. Instead, I starting sketching small pieces that I could hold in my lap, and I filled the pages like a diary.
A college professor told me to not hand-feed the viewer—give them enough to think, and don't insult them by spoon-feeding each idea to them. Another told me to draw what I love and what I was afraid of. I combined this advice and applied it to my work. I started making small sketches of myself. On one piece of paper I would draw my face; then, I would layer a "see through" piece of paper with the hair drawn on it on top of the face. I wanted the portrait to look how I felt: dissolving. The economy was still shaky and I had worked for two years, but couldn't formulate a resume because of my nondisclosure contracts. I was painted into a corner and felt like a failure. I didn't want to show my face, so I didn't. I took my face out of the drawing. It was the perfect description, every detail painstakingly out in front of my audience for them to see, but I was completely obscure.
I started drawing other people the same way, in these "hair portrait" styles. As I was showing the works to other artists and friends, an odd thing happened: people could easily guess the age, race, and socioeconomic background of the sitter. Even though the drawings were all black and white, they could guess which ones were me, a checkout girl, or the most famous comment: "that is a rich white woman's blow out." I was blown away. I experimented by drawing an array of women, from wealthy to poor, and simply titled the pieces as their annual income (20k, 150k, 750k); without being prompted, the viewers guessed the connection in seconds. The most fascinating were the drawings of black women who had used hair relaxers to mimic "rich white hair"; everyone could tell the difference. When I asked them how, they said they could tell by the texture and thickness of the hair. Some people could even spot the difference between a red head, a bottle blonde, and brunette. It was astounding.
People began to try to identify gender, race, socio-economic status, and sometimes even the actual person (because they assume it’s someone I know or a celebrity). I find it utterly profound how in-tune our culture is to catch the difference between a "rich" woman’s blowout or an “imitation” hair relaxer done at home. It made me realize even the most subtle nuances of hair communicate who we are—or maybe more importantly, who we attempt to be.
With that in mind, I combine the use of hyper-detailed drawing and devoid spaces to give the audience intense visual information without full context. My idea is that the viewer will project their own ideas into the negative space and fill in the blanks without being spoon-fed ideas. The sensual aspects of my work invite the “male gaze” to the piece. I relieve the viewer of the potential of guilt arising from objectification by making my portraits faceless. Many of my works are titled after mythical or religious female figures that have met unfortunate ends or have been subdued by misogyny or a patriarchy.
For more information about Schall and her work, please visit her website, www.brittanyschall.com.