Thursday, February 12, 2004

Artist combs through tangle of life

Hair flows with symbolism

By Marilyn Bauer
The Cincinnati Enquirer

What: Petah Coyne
Where: Cincinnati Art Museum, 953 Eden Park Drive
When: Saturday through June 6
Information: 639-2995,
It was a crisis of faith that led Art Academy of Cincinnati graduate Petah Coyne in a new direction.

"My brother passed away" in 1996, she explains. "When something like that happens, you either lose your religion or you get religion. I lost mine."

After her brother's death, Coyne, who was raised Catholic, felt free to incorporate the image of the Virgin Mary into her work. But she wanted to make it her own by adding references to Japanese culture (her passion), as well as feminism and sexuality. She first set out to find a few statues and wound up at a wholesale religious store in New York.

"The Virgin Marys were really expensive," she says. "I asked the owners if they had any Virgins that were half-price or damaged. They took me to this back room where there had to be more than 600 Marys. I got them for a song and took them home by wheelbarrow."

She unloaded her find in her studio and turned off the light. The space began to glow a chilling green.

"I thought the Virgin Mary was here," she says. "Your mind keeps jumping back and forth between, 'It's totally real, I can see it' to, 'I am over tired or out of my mind.' My second thought was, 'Wait until I tell my father that the Virgin Mary visited me in Brooklyn.' When I turned around, I felt silly; they were glow-in-the-dark Virgins."

Hair is power

For this new body of work, Coyne next turned to an experience she had in Japan, where she saw a rope woven in 1785 from the hair of women from a Kyoto temple. Their hair had been shorn and woven into cord in order to haul lumber to build a new house of worship.

"It was a great sacrifice for these women," Coyne says. "Their hair was linked to their sexuality. ... Cutting their hair took their power away."

In 1993, Coyne's friend and fellow artist Ann Hamilton covered the floor of the Dia Center for the Arts in New York with horsehair for an exhibit. When the show was over, Hamilton gave Coyne the hair. The locks became the basis for the series Fairy Tales, installations of intricately knotted hair, two examples of which are on view at the Cincinnati Art Museum.

"She takes the idea of relief sculpture and does wonderful things with it," says Timothy Rub, museum director and curator of the show. "The way it is put together is a grand gesture. It's drawing in space."

"Untitled #920 (Muraski Shikibu and Sei Shonagon)," borrowed from a private collection in New York, reflects Coyne's interest in creating unresolved narratives. Using the glow-in-the-dark Virgins, she weaves their hair together so they can never separate.

"Untitled #926 (Top Hat & Put Put)," acquired by the museum, is a portrait of Coyne and her brother that refers to their childhood nicknames. Long, lacy netting of horsehair ensnares two taxidermy ducks. One flies heavenward, the other straight forward.

"The hair is interwoven, but it looks like they are separating," says Coyne, who worked with 40 assistants for two years 10 hours a day to create the piece. "I think of these as road maps for birds carrying souls to heaven."

Everyday snares and nets

The symbolism evoked by the use of hair references everything from the loss of hair during chemotherapy to the "tangled web we weave," Samson, Medusa, the abundance of hair, and its ability to grow after death.

"These pieces have been painstakingly crafted," says Rub. "There are tens of thousands of individual knots. The way they are woven, they appear as nets and snares."

Birth, rebirth, grief, sorrow, longing - intense and challenging subject matter. Coyne, 51, says they come by way of the art academy.

"I will never be the same," she says of her experience there. "It expanded everything I thought about. It made me intense and challenging."

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