"Abacus 1863" by Sonya Clark at the Craft & Folk Art Museum (Courtesy CAFAM )
"Material Reflex," a tight introduction to Sonya Clark's work at the Craft & Folk Art Museum, centers on the evocative and provocative power of hair.
This isn't new territory. Others have taken on hair as an integral marker of African American identity, especially: Think of Lorna Simpson's attention to hairstyle and wigs; Kori Newkirk's use of beads, synthetic hair and pomade; Alison Saar's casting of hair as roots, branches, vessels, connective currents.
Clark, whose heritage is African American, Caribbean and Scottish, shows quite poignantly that even if familiar, the territory is not exhausted.
She approaches it from an engrossing angle, regarding the manipulation of hair as an intimate craft process. Twisting and braiding in her work resonate at once as acts of private meditation, material exploration and cultural self-declaration.
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"Abacus 1863" (2010) exemplifies the kind of strength an object packed with such associations can possess. At five inches square, the wood-framed device would fit comfortably in the hand, where its beads could be flicked by a finger. Clark names the piece in honor of the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, and by rendering the beads from soft, dense spheres of her own hair, she literally puts herself into the historical equation. Body and body politic, past and present, the physical and metaphorical fuse with a compact charge.
In another striking work, Clark presents a digital image of a thick dreadlock continuously unspooling: hair as an indicator of time's passage and a vehicle of legacy. She also extrapolates on the notion of hair as ornament, using it as a raw material for several necklaces. In one, she twists hair into loops and joins the loops into a chain. In another, she forms hair into small, decorative beads.
And in the simplest, but most striking, she shapes hair into a single variegated strand shifting from black to gray to brown to ivory, hanging loose like a tail, an open collar, a whip, a narrative line.
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The dynamic between the one and the many, central to the process of both joining and separating strands, factors into much of Clark's work using black cotton thread. In "Rooted and Uprooted" (2011), a pair of wall-mounted sculptures, networks of threads emerge from small overhanging panels, the disparate roots dropping down and gathering into a single thick braid.
In one piece, the strands separate again into another broad bed of roots, and in the other they hang loose, unanchored, echoing a neighboring work's theme of displacement and diaspora.
Clark, who teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, also uses black plastic pocket combs in several sculptures, smartly playing off their functional connotations and loom-like modular form. No matter her materials, Clark "braids" and "twists" associations, creating works with a distinctly emotional tensile strength.
Craft & Folk Art Museum, 5814 Wilshire Blvd., (323) 937-4230, through Sept. 8. Closed Monday. www.cafam.org
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