I am not interested in the high points of life. Only five minutes of every day are interesting. I want to show the rest, normal life. Henri Lefebvre
In this most recent body of work, time and space exist in two parts; family members and loved ones represented by various flora like Snap Dragons and Forget-me-Not held in the artist’s hands, and intimate glimpses into short moments of solitude. “Carving out time and space is an act of will when you are a mother,” Bilenker writes, and then boldly attempts to preserve time, taking fleeting moments and capturing them to be revisited. Bilenker uses a drawing technique historically rooted in hair work, aiming and achieving authenticity: to make an image look the way it feels.
Melanie Bilenker (b. 1978) translates the historic art of Victorian hair jewelry into work that reflects upon the contemporary era. Her work is an exciting mix of technical ingenuity and profoundly intimate concept. Her delicate pendants and brooches are wearable art objects, depicting ordinary moments of everyday life—making lunch, bathing, washing dishes—with “drawings” made from gold, silver, and the artist’s own hair. “I am looking for ways to conjure a sense of home for the viewer,” Bilenker states, referring to both her subject matter and the medium of human hair. “I see hair as proof of existence, a souvenir.” Often cited as a leader in the movement to return to craftsmanship in jewelry making, Bilenker’s work has been placed in collections worldwide. Most recently her work was included in The Smithsonian Museum of American Art’s 40 Under 40 and Jewellery Unleashed at the Museum voor Moderne Kunst, Arnhem, Netherlands. Bilenker’s work is included in many museums around the world including the Smithsonian Museum of American Art, DC; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY; The Mint Museum in Charlotte, NC; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA; National Museum of Scotland; Philadelphia Museum of Art, PA; Yale University Art Gallery, Hartford, CT; Museum of Fine Art, Houston, TX; Museum of Arts and Design, New York, NY; Newark Museum, NJ; Racine Museum of Art, Racine WI.
Ambiguous intimacy: The Jewelry of Melanie Bilenker
A line drawing of a young woman, nude in a bathtub, eyes downcast as if lost in reverie. Another drawing: the same woman washing dishes. Others: a hand or a foot. The lines are fine, sometimes to the edge of invisibility. Some of them run behind others, a tiny but perceptible amount of space intervening. The lines make silverpoint – one of the finest of drawing mediums – look heavy. The drawings are small, no more than two or three inches at the largest. The surface is oddly glossy; the backing medium a yellowish white like ivory. But these are not quite drawings in the conventional sense. All are wearable jewelry, either brooches reminiscent of cameos, or rings where a miniscule drawing replaces a stone.
The drawings are almost impossibly delicate, the images tender and a bit melancholy. The jewelry is modest in scale, devoid of the aggressive ambition that declares that bigness equates with importance. They are not heroic. Instead, they are sweet and intimate. But there are also elements of strangeness and barely suppressed eroticism, which together throw the sweetness off kilter. Considered closely, these objects are slightly disorienting, as if you had entered your own home to find all the furniture moved.
This is the jewelry of Melanie Bilenker. They are not essays in pushing the envelope, nor are they assertively conceptual. They are, however, completely of this moment, informed by both a sense of history and a comfortable knowledge of contemporary art.
Bilenker’s drawing medium of choice is human hair. All those fragile lines are bits of hair, patiently arranged. Her point of reference is 18th and 19th century jewelry made from hair, a tradition that began with secreting a snippet of a loved one’s hair in a locket, which would then be worn close to the body. Hair was also used for mourning jewelry, as a physical reminder of a loved one now lost. In the Victorian era, making hair jewelry became something of a fashion. Hobbyists and professionals figured out how to make elaborate constructions from human hair, eventually losing the connection to mourning and remembrance. In the 20th century, the practice fell out of favor.
The use of hair connects to the concept of the trace. In semiotics, the connection between symbol and meaning is often arbitrary, an agreement made by social contract. But semiotics had to admit there could be an actual, physical connection between a certain class of symbol-like phenomena and their meanings. A footprint in the sand is an actual record that a specific body once was present; a photograph is often presumed to bear the same relationship to actuality. And so it is with hair. It’s the trace of a person.
Hair is intimate by nature. Having once been part of our bodies, it remains a trace, souvenir, even memento mori. There are few other physical substitutes for our bodies – clothes and jewelry being notable examples – and hair is the only commonly acceptable substitute that was once literally part of us. (One could collect fingernail clippings, for instance, but few do.) For Bilenker, the trajectory from hair to intimacy pointed directly to private experience, to domesticity.
Thus the homey imagery of Bilenker’s drawings. One of her favorite quotations is from Henri Lefebvre, the French philosopher of everyday life:
“I am not interested in the high points of life. Only five minutes of every day are interesting. I want to show the rest, normal life.”
Since she uses her own hair for her drawings, Bilenker logically concluded that the everyday life she should depict would be her own. She takes pictures of herself around the house doing ordinary things: washing dishes, eating lunch, taking a bath. These pictures are then carefully rendered in hair, creating narratives of the very ordinary. In effect, she asks us to rethink our own lives as we look into hers. Is it the spectacular that’s important, or the quotidian? Is it not the smallest things that, gathered into the aggregate, constitute our actual lives? Bilenker is a poet of the small, the domestic, and the ordinary.
The scenes she depicts would only be witnessed by the closest of relations: parents, siblings, or lovers. Who else gets to see us folding socks? The pure everyday-ness of Bilenker’s imagery reinforces the sense of intimacy already established by her use of hair and the small scale of the jewelry.
All this sweetness could be a recipe for cloying sentimentality, but Bilenker’s jewelry has other overtones that save them from cuteness. For instance, there’s the ick factor of human hair. While hair can be sensual when it’s still attached to somebody’s head, once removed it takes on the scent of death. It is only one or two steps removed from samples of human skin. So there is something creepy about mourning jewelry, all that hair from dead people braided and curled into baroque patterns. Even though Bilenker is very much alive, her choice of hair remains vaguely unsettling.
Hair is also notoriously associated with raw sexuality, particularly in cultures that have not shaken off the legacies of male dominance. Women here shave their armpits. Radical Islam pressures women to cover their heads – that is, to hide their hair. And of course, there’s all that unruly pubic hair, lurking just out of sight. How do we know that Bilenker’s hair drawings came only from her head?
Which brings up the undertone of voyeurism in some of Bilenker’s work, which she has emphasized with a recent series of viewfinders. Bilenker’s personal association is with souvenirs at tourist hotels where her family vacationed years ago: a staff photographer would take pictures of families eating or lounging by the pool and then mount the transparency in a plastic viewfinder. However, viewfinders were also a vehicle for soft-core porn. Peeping through the device replicated the act of spying on an unsuspecting sunbather – although the models often looked right at the camera, negating the secrecy but reinforcing the illusion of sexual availability.
Bilenker’s images of herself bathing have the strongest element of voyeurism of all her work. While she certainly isn’t disporting herself in a sexually charged way, a note of eroticism remains. She regards her position as one of strength, though, as if she catches the viewer looking and enjoys his (or her) embarrassment. The frank acceptance of her own nudity is typical of the third wave of feminists, who regard their nakedness as a matter of fact rather than bait for the male gaze. In this, she follows in the footsteps of wild women artists like Carolee Schneemann and Annie Sprinkle – not precedents often cited for jewelry.
Still, the issue never resolves fully. Bilenker embraces ambiguity, the condition of both/and rather than either/or. In this, she’s like any good artist in the postmodern era. Her refusal to resolve her position is one of the pleasures of her work. Her jewelry, which at first seems so intimate, always leaves a few questions hanging in the air. One starts with an impression of cozy familiarity, but ends up with a conundrum.
Bruce Metcalf is a studio jeweler and writer. He lives near Philadelphia.
Ulysses Grant Dietz
The moment I first laid eyes on work by Melanie Bilenker, I knew I was going to acquire one for the Newark Museum.
Why? Because Melanie is the sort of artist who crosses boundaries with apparent ease. She is trained as a jeweler, which, to my blinkered curatorial heart, is comforting. She is not an artist dabbling in jewelry. One of the most appealing things about her work from a purely academic viewpoint is that she knows where she’s coming from. It is no coincidence that she works in hair; and yet she has created a modern riff on that historical precedent that is both uniquely her own and uniquely of the moment – that precious and all-too-rare young-millennial moment that is both fully self-absorbed and fully embracing of the complex cultural history swirling around it.
I expect artists to be self-absorbed; and I expect young people to be similarly so in this day and age. When one of these artists is also highly attuned to the emotional emanations of the past, and can translate them into something both evocative and fresh, it is a memorable moment in a curator’s life.
The tradition of hair as a miraculous ingredient is as old as magic itself. A snippet of hair is the element that binds a soul to a spell; that links magic to its target. The ancient world made much of hair and its properties. How interesting it is that hair is also the vessel for much DNA research in crime investigations – a different kind of magic, but no less so for being science-based. Hair is the focus of billions of dollars of product development and merchandising in the world today – in every culture in every part of the globe. Hair is personal and intimate and unique. It is the stuff of sexuality and beauty and romance.
My wildly diverse collections of decorative arts material in Newark encompass the full range of hair with all of its quasi-magical qualities. There is hair of the living – used to bind the heart of the owner to the source of the hair. Newark owns pictures made by men using the cut up hair donated by immediate family members. We have shadow-boxed wreathes woven by professionals that combine the hair of multiple generations of living and dead family members into a sepia testament to the importance of kinship. We have live children’s hair bound in gold rings as Mother’s day gifts; we have dead children’s hair braided into lockets and brooches as symbols of grief; we have an ornately woven bracelet of a family’s hair given to a wife by her husband; we have a beautiful bride’s hair woven into a watch chain for her handsome groom, complete with hair-work symbols of Hope, Faith and Love as ornamental fobs.
Of course, Melanie’s work is not just about hair, for all the richness of that medium. It is also about the miniature portrait. Plenty of us know about these miniature works of art, dating in America largely from the post-Revolutionary period to the end of the Civil War. Exquisite tiny portraits of beloved people were painted on paper-thin ivory. These vivid likenesses, startling in their realism, were worn by men and by women as necklaces, as fobs, as bracelets, as rings. In many cases locks of hair were included in compartments on the back of the portrait, bound in gold, sometimes visible under glass; sometimes hidden under an enameled plaque
And, I should remind you, when all of these objects were new, it was not just the content or the medium that made the magic – it was the consummate skill of the painter or hair-worker that added power to the spell. Exquisitely wrought tiny things have always captivated the human imagination. The wizardry of the artist was as appreciated as the magical property of the hair itself.
The same day I committed, by email, to buying one of Melanie’s brooches (“Itch,” 2010), I happened to be at the Art Alliance in Philadelphia at an opening. Melanie and I were in the same room for over an hour. We never met; I didn’t know who she was – although I knew her work very well. The fact that I so strongly wanted her work for my museum’s collection, but still managed not to connect the actual artist with her work when she was right there in front of me, somehow embodies the emotional detachment that makes Bilenker’s transcendent pictures seem all that much more powerful. You don’t need to know who she is to be moved by her art. Ironically, perhaps, this is also true with many surviving pieces of hair jewelry and portrait miniatures: the identities of the original sources are lost to time; but still they speak to us and hold us in their spell. The magic outlives the original meaning
Thus Melanie’s work gives us triple magic (hair, likeness, skill) with a completely contemporary twist. Using her own hair to create mind-boggling tiny portraits of herself doing ordinary things, she appropriates two separate but intertwined traditions and transforms them into memorials of anonymity. Anyone who sees or wears one of her brooches is embracing only the art – because the portrait and indeed the hair itself are largely meaningless in the way these things were in the past. To restate it: Bilenker creates intimate portraits that tie her image with her hair in a very powerful traditional mode – and then she sends them out to be owned and worn by people whom she doesn’t know and who don’t know her. It is rather a stunning reversal that could be twisted into being somehow symbolic of 21st-century alienation, but in fact speaks rather endearingly of the artist’s own humility. She uses her image and her hair simply because that’s what she has. She offers herself in her art.
And we are glad to accept that offer.
Ulysses Grant Dietz is the Chief Curator of the Newark Museum.