Strong signals through thin hair


The recent drawings by Jonathan van Doornum, “Strong signals through thin hair”, seem to be, at a first glance, unrelated to any previous series of works that the artist is usually associated with, such as the sculptures and the assemblages referencing a contact zone between technology and bricolage, human and non-human, outside and inside. Nevertheless, at a closer look, these drawings prove to be equally related to the traces of the inter-human contact visible around us, while at the same time engaging with the play between emptiness and fullness, abstract and figurative, light and heavy. As soon as the viewer realizes that the two spheres depicted here are bald heads gazed at from above, they also acknowledge this strange point of view. So how come we reached this privileged point where suddenly everything makes sense and we get to see the unseen, the image which is usually so carefully masked and hidden from human eyes. Are we unexpectedly taller than usual? Are we looking from the perspective of the clouds? Are we already gone, and is this some sort of reward?

Drawing still attracts many theorists and artists to speculate on its definition and territory. What still intrigues everybody is its dual character, the way in which drawing creates the positive and negative spaces, while the line itself remains a fiction, a tool for the artist to create meaning out of this world, to understand concepts and ideas, to “translate” the invisible into visibility. I would also add a feature that was elaborated by John Berger, in his famous essay “Drawn to that moment”, the double face of drawing as a meeting point between life and death – seeing for the first time versus seeing for the last time. The last time is even more intense in the author’s experience – the drawing of his dead father could capture the locus of his memories. “The drawing was no longer deserted but inhabited. For each form, between the pencil marks and the white paper they marked, there was now a door through which moments of life could enter: the drawing, instead of being simply an object of perception with one face, had moved forward to become double-faced, and worked like a filter, from behind, it drew out my memories of the past whilst, forwards, it projected an image which, unchanging, was becoming increasingly familiar.” So, in this account by Berger, we see drawing as being a point of departure, not just a site of arrival. Drawing can thus challenge the very idea of disappearance, and can undress a truth that no other medium can. From this perspective, now the bald heads drawn by Jonathan van Doornum are naked images of that which people rarely chose to depict. It brings to life the rarely seen images that can create a new understanding of humans, while hiding nothing at all. Even the lines, the conventions of drawing, are there as reminders of the truth of the medium, of the process itself, and of the layers that drawing is made of. And these layers do not relate only to reality itself, but to the whole thinking process of the artist, from the first ideas to the final proposal. And finally, the heads can be seen as the other face of a portrait – the one side that is so often covered and politely ignored.

The presence or absence of hair in different rituals, fairy tales, and mythologies only confirm how much humankind has invested in the symbolical power of hair as a cultural heritage. In Southeast Asia, shaving a newborn’s hair may mean the liberation from the past, in Hasidic Judaism, sometimes women cut their hair after marriage, in Mongolian culture, cutting the hair is a collective celebration at a baby’s 1st anniversary, while some Amazonian tribes pull women’s hair also as a sign of a new stage coming next, and in India, hair oiling is a ritual connecting mothers and daughters. In fairy tales, the hair is also a magic tool, if we only think of Rapunzel, who lets down her golden long hair for the prince to climb up and win her heart. In Greek mythology Achilles offers his long, beautiful hair to Patroclus at his funeral, and this imposes a significant collective grief.

Jonathan van Doornum, in turn, is interested in new stories, intriguing materials, and unexpected characters. The vulnerable figures shown in his new series of drawings are part of a constellation of bald men, a club, a network. They tell stories and they connect to each other. They “work” in pairs, just like the tandem of time and space, so important for the artist. In his own words: “I try to convince a viewer to look twice, by luring them with the work’s physical appearance. I am translating carefully selected cultural and historical references into form and imagination. As a result, I slowly create works that make cross-references in time and space.” The time and space of the drawings also vindicates them in comparison to other visual mediums, considered “dynamic images”. The drawings are equally dynamic. They never stand still in their depictions; they are also different than photography. While a photo may capture a single shot of time in space, drawings capture the whole time past, not just a moment, and the world in its dynamics as a whole network of beings, signals, and stories. This is exactly what the series “Strong signals through thin hair” is proposing – a fresh view on the invisible threads connecting us to one another and reminding us that this is a story in the making, in which we are all characters and storytellers alike.

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