HAIRY: An Interview with Chris Sollars

For the last year, Bay Area artist Chris Sollars has sported a biblical behemoth of a beard, although his cleanly shaven cheeks are once again on view in Sollars’s newest project, Hairy, shown as part of YBCA’s Bay Area Now.  It’s an interesting update on an identity-probing lineage that includes predecessors like Chris Burden, Gordon Matta Clark, James Luna, Ana Mendieta, and David Hammons.  DailyServing recently had the opportunity to chat with Chris about the work.

DS: So!  Since I haven’t seen you in a while, are you closest to Man, Woman, or Child?

CS: Closest to Child!  But since I’m doing these hair events, I’ve been growing the beard back.  It’s just not very long.  I have scruff, but it’s not a “beard” beard.

Chris Sollars, "Man Woman Child," 2011. 3 Framed C-prints, 20" x 26" each.

DS: I have to ask, which came first, the beard or the art?

CS: Well, even before the beard, I’ve always known that I wanted to make a wig of my long hair, which I’ve had since high school, and wear it at a later date. That’s why the title is Hair and the subtitle is When I’m 64.  I like the collision of those two moments of time—wearing hair from when I was thirty-four when I’m sixty-four.  So I think that piece came first.  As for the beard, I started growing it, and it just turned into its own thing.  My girlfriend took a long trip and by the time she got back, I already had a bunch of things I wanted to do with it.  Before I cut it, I wanted to let it grow a little longer and let it live on its own, and it inspired a series of works.  I’d done a performance in 1998 at Skowhegan where I went to a tool shop in Maine with a lot of old tools and was drawn toward this long handled axe… I personally tried to sharpen it and make a video of me shaving with it.  Of course, I didn’t have much hair back then, because I was 22, and I didn’t have the capacity to grow hair like I do now.  Anyway, I decided that with this new beard I wanted to do it again, with an axe.  Working with my wigmaker, however, I had to grow the beard as long as possible, and if I was going to shave it off with an axe, it wouldn’t work as a wig.  It’s a really a rare thing, to make a wig out of someone’s own beard hair, because you’re hand-knotting, and working with different clumps of hair—looping it like a rug—and it’s a difficult thing, even if your beard is really long, because it’s still so short.

Chris Sollars, "Hair: When I'm 64," 2011-2040. Hand-knotted wig made of human hair. Image courtesy of the artist.

Chris Sollars, "Beard," 2011. Hand-knotted facial hair. Image courtesy of the artist.

DS: It’s probably pretty brittle, too.

CS: Yeah. So I decided to do the beard wig first, and then grow back a beard that was substantial enough to shave off with an axe.  So that was the process.  And in between, before I cut off all the hair, I wanted to do a series of related videos.

DS: Were you intentionally trying to touch on issues of gender and masculinity?

CS: Well, yeah.  I named the triptych (the photographs of myself) Man Woman Child (2011) on purpose, because… Well, a child would never have a beard like that and a woman would never have a beard to that extent.  I’ve always had fine hair, and I’ve always been in between being kind of “girlie” and, well, not.

Chris Sollars, "Shave," 2011. Video still. Image courtesy of the artist.

DS: Shaving your beard with an axe is such an over the top gesture!  And you’re wearing this plaid flannel.  But I noticed that as you started to talk about your work, you weren’t talking about gender as much as you were talking about intersecting moments in time, or an interest in working with certain tools.

CS: Well, [the interest in the axe] led to that.  It led to the absurdity of knowing that I could cut down trees, but that I could also cut my face with the thing!  There’s a moment in the videos where there’s a cut or change or rupture that happens.  I’m thinking of the video edit like I am cutting hair, so there’s a real switch that happens, a change of one’s look, or the change that can happen with a cut when you juxtapose one image with the next.  Leading up to the show, in fact, and even currently, I’ve been hiding out a little bit, just until people have seen that work [and realize that Sollars is now totally clean-shaven]. It’s kind of a strange performance that’s still going on.  I was even wearing costumes to change my identity around town. I didn’t want to reveal that I’d cut my hair until the show had opened.  I realized as soon as I cut my long hair that that pieces like mine and like Chris Burden’s I Became A Secret Hippy (1971) don’t exist as just performances, but as pieces of our identity from that point forward.

Chris Sollars, "Hair Lay," 2011. Video still. Image courtesy of the artist.

Chris Sollars, "Hair Ball," 2011. Video still. Image courtesy of the artist.

Chris Sollars, "Beard Rub," 2011. Video still. Image courtesy of the artist.

DS: What about race? Does that play in at all?  I might be reading more into the project than what you intend, but I read an article in the New York Times about Matta Clark’s Clock Shower (1973), and writer’s spin was about how it was this glorious time in New York when this guy could walk to the top of the Clocktower building and cover himself in shaving cream and then diddle with the clock.  And my thought was yeah, if he’s white, he can do this.  Going from that thought, and looking at your work, which includes this golden ball of hair surveying a forest and the golden blonde Hair Lays and the Beard Rubs, which seem to be about marking or claiming in certain ways, I’m just curious if there are any thoughts about…

CS: …about identity in relation to race?  Well, I think that perception of where I exist culturally, or politically or socially, changes with the haircut.  Going back to Burden’s Secret Hippy, you might be a countercultural person, but you’re wiped of that in terms of your identity.  I guess that’s why I also looked at Ana Mendieta’s piece with the transplanting of the man’s beard onto her face, taking on that masculinity.  Or Adrian Piper’s Mythic Being.  So I’m aware of these female performances and cross cultural performances with hair and identity, and I was thinking, okay, so if there’s this white man art with these things opposed to it or juxtaposed against it, what is white male identity art?  Or what is it specifically to me?  I guess that’s why I focus so much on the hair as a material, like with close-ups of the hair grain, which I think of as wood grain.  Kind of just investigating what is it that my being is made up of.  You know, the scraggly curly beard hair, the long fine hair… What happens when I change?  When I’m separated from it?  How does it exist on its own as an abstraction, like with the Hair Lays, or the beard itself rubbing on things?  I think the masculine action of shaving with an axe kind of completes the picture of that identity of that person.  And I’ve been so influenced by a lot of that ‘70s work that I was curious about performing that investigation on myself.