Hirsute Pleasures: Getting in Adamo Macri’s Hair
by Kenneth Radu
I have been thinking about hair in various portraits by the intriguing artist Adamo Macri. Coincidentally or not, I have also been reading a fascinating ethnographic study called Entanglement: The Secret Lives of Hair by anthropologist Emma Tarlo. Attention to specific images or details in art can lead us to amazing perspectives, or bog us down in quagmires. I take the liberty of expanding the common definition of detail to mean more than a minor item of interest. Careful not to extend beyond the limits of plausibility, I necessarily limit my discussion, although I do need to run my fingers through a lot of hair.
Allow me a moment to talk about my own hair. Once upon a time I had lengthy hair. I only cut it because it interfered with my laboured attempts at swimming a daily mile in my college’s Olympic pool. Tied back in a ponytail, it still whipped across my face as I front- crawled from one end to another. Emerging from the heavily chlorinated water, my eyes drunken rabbit red despite the goggles, I did not remove a bathing cap to shake out luxuriant, perfectly combed tresses like Esther Williams, the American movie star and champion swimmer. In the showers and locker room, there was the added task of combing out tangles unless I applied conditioner after shampooing, so I decided that long hair was a bother. Short hair became a matter of convenience. When males of all ages now play with hairstyles and as many colours as found in a giant Crayola box, similar to the way Macri does in his portraits, no one thinks twice about the length of a man’s hair the way they used. The story of my hair is of little interest except that it touches upon general truths.
I remember occasional mockery and scorn as if I, and countless others like me, had violated some sacred precept of what a male was supposed to look like. Real men had short hair, so the argument went, men who populated the army, steel mills, athletic fields, or banks where short hair ruled. The severity of the soldier’s buzz cut is not only connected with definitions of masculinity, which Macri undermines, but also with military practicalities. Contradictory historical evidence that warriors of unquestionable “manhood” around the world wore their hair long didn’t weaken convictions and prejudice. Recall the splendid hair length of the Anishinaabeg (Ojibway), Cree, or Sioux, braided or not. In parts of the world today, a man’s long hair (including beards) symbolizes strength and virility, masculinity and authority, patriarchy and religious orthodoxy.
If he sheers it, he displeases his god, or suffers debilitation like Samson, a form of castration. On the head or face, hair demonstrates a cross-cultural range of fetish and foible, moral frailty and spiritual accessory, magic and memory, prowess and pathos, identity and individuality, beliefs and rituals, private dreams and public perceptions, filth and purity, chastity and concupiscence, aspects of which are evident in Macri’s portraits. We can’t separate hair from cultural ethnography, religious history, the industrial-military complex, or sex and psychology, but I need to narrow this down or get crushed by a welter of complexes, cuttings, locks and tresses.
Arguments are also made in support of baldness, equally indicative of powerful sexuality, spiritual enlightenment, or great sorrow. Think, for example, of Hindu widows in the past, perhaps still in some regions today, or the sheering of novitiates who enter a convent. During the time of which I speak, baldness was in fact deemed more masculine in the eyes of public morality than “unnaturally” long hair on men. Even a bald a man kept his gonads. How can opposites mean the same thing: a question I often ask myself when regarding Macri’s art because he blends opposites in order to assimilate contradictions, or to create a new identity altogether. Long hair and baldness: both signs of male power and hot sex, or humility and obedience?
The actor Yul Brynner attracted attention and popularity because he was bald. Yet, if baldness implies sex, some men nonetheless regard it as symptomatic of lost youth or weakened masculinity, and seek miracle cures or wigs. Speaking of wigs, let’s not forget married Orthodox Jewish women who wear wigs to cover their own hair, and the fantastic wigs of the 17th and 18th century, European aristocracy. Apart from loss of hair as a result of disease, or degrees of alopecia, there are also spiritual motives for entirely shaving off one’s hair, say, in the manner of Buddhist monks. According to Tarlo, a global and profitable industry exists to buy hair from those who sheer it, and to sell various hairpieces to those who need them for physical or religious purposes.
Long hair from some perspectives, especially ethnocentric American ones, signified the feminine (or effeminacy), and eventually became associated with counter-cultural aspirations or dangerously radical, anti-military attitudes and perversions. One recalls the hippies, their hair symbolizing their rejection of patriarchal notions and social mores. The offense led to oppressive measures in various quarters of the world: “[s]hocked by what they considered the depraved values and behaviour of hippies, as exemplified by scenes of drug-infested parties and free sex in the film Hair, the government of Singapore … introduced a strict ban on long hair for men, enforced through both fines and scissors” (Entanglement: The Secret Lives of Hair, 205). As a contemporary artist freed from the strictures of the past, and pretty much going his own way in any case, Macri incorporates feminine, masculine, as well as the androgynous, in many of his works. He refuses to define character or gender on the basis of conventions and traditions. And the detail or image of hair in his portraits is crucial to their significance and success.
In an experimental communal college where I lived and attempted to study until I moved out (the distractions were many and varied), long hair on men seemed the norm, as it now does once again. The worst humiliation imposed on female collaborators in WW II was to have their hair publicly shorn. Prisoners also have their hair sheared, for purposes of hygiene and humiliation, reminding the incarcerated or enslaved that they have indeed been separated in more ways than one from their previous lives. It’s not surprising today, however, to see a woman who shaves her head as a matter of personal choice like Grace Jones, a cultural defiance and celebration of independent will.
Skinheads, for whom the hair of the hippies is anathema, defy convention by their hair, or lack of it, among other things. Just for the sake of style or personal whim, some men shave both sides of their heads, leaving a nest of hair on the top. Members of death and heavy metal rock groups favour long hair for its frenzied effects while they rock and scream above the mosh pits. There are crewcuts, Mohawks and fauxhawks, dreadlocks and corncobs, taper fades and messy spikes, chignons and man buns, many of which can be found in Macri’s portfolio. Men may choose to grow hair as long as they please, or to cut it off completely, without countercultural or musical motives. When it comes to the social, psychological and religious import of hair, examples tumble out of the horn of plenty. We have to accept the multiplicity of opinions and styles, and above all the paradox that opposites may travel towards the same meaning. We learn from those who have studied the subject like Emma Tarlo. We also learn from our own experience and from Adamo Macri’s art.
Browsing through Macri’s online assemblage of portraits, I am struck by the variety of hair, its usages, its contrasts, and how the artist deliberately changes cut or style so that it becomes an inherent and inextricable part of the whole picture. Compare, for example, the motionless flat panels of hair on either side of the priest-like face in Ordain with the shock of hair tumbling over the forehead in Snake. Half of the head is shaved in Infrasonic Owl, a visually witty profile of the artist as intellectual, including the prop of thick-rimmed black glasses. Hair participates in the multiplicity of selves Macri adeptly arranges for our viewing pleasure, conveying as much of the distinctive personalities of the portraits as the make-up, costumes, and assorted paraphernalia, which explains my fixation on the hirsute.
The famous saying goes both ways: “the devil is in the details,” or a variant attributed to Le Corbusier, “God is in the details.” What exactly do those metaphors imply: frustration and wickedness, or revelation and transcendence? Or the difficulty of getting all elements of a project right, the failure of one sabotaging the success of all; or the fullest realization of the creation because all matters, all components, all the details have been tended to, nothing amiss or remiss. Viewers recognize the importance of a single detail or specific image in a complex scene, say, like the chapter of the open book in Vermeer’s The Astronomer, or the bull’s head in Picasso’s Guernica. Seeing the totality of what is present, of how everything contributes to a work’s dynamism, intensifies meaning, pleasure and understanding.
Macri’s vision embodies the angelic and the demonic, the feminine and the masculine, often in the same portrait. As an artist, he is fascinated by contradictions and tensions, by instability of ideas of self and its fluid nature, even as he sabotages preconceptions. Details in his portraits, whether the eyes, the costume, the make-up, the props, skin tones, lighting, or hair, therefore, provide a deeper awareness of the ingenuity and complexity of his artist.
Perusing a recent Macri portrait, Ordain, I am impressed by the presence of hair and its contribution to the overall effect and purpose of the image. Neither arbitrary in his selection of style nor oblivious to the contribution hair makes, Macri is not a barber or stylist posting pictures in his salon and inviting clients to have their hair cut in the same way for a fee. As a well-informed artist, he is fully conscious of the ancient and contemporary meanings attributed to hair, and each portrait testifies to his careful arrangement of locks, tresses, curls and waves, and at times, approximations of baldness.
Macri does not photograph his personal self the way we do in “selfies,” but presents a series of fluid characters. He offers a spectrum of identities in which viewers all participate. He does not “paint” or depict his self-portrait in the manner of Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Kahloo, or Warhol, all of whom, regardless of alterations of style and colour in the self-portraits, remain essentially who they are. Macri’s hair changes from portrait to portrait because the persona depicted, and I use the word persona deliberately, also changes. The hair narrates; the hair animates; the hair asserts; the hair testifies; the hair intimates; the hair arouses; the hair celebrates; the hair despairs; the hair intimidates; the hair invites. The hair is joyous, melancholy, fierce, playful, suppressed, exuberant and erotic. Part of the flesh and part of the spirit, the hair is attached the ethereal body of the angel, and to the sulfurous spirit of the devil. Controlled, wild, demur, vivacious, Macri’s hair in the portraits is both real and symbolic.
Consider the wind swept hair in Corrugate, a brown-toned, subtle and sensual portrait of a black-masked face appearing between two serpentine staffs, presumably wooden, perhaps not. They seem to grow out of the invisible chest, separating at their widest to allow for the hair’s energy, so vital to the portrait that it possesses its own vigorous life. In the beautiful and calm portrait of the Reichian Orgone Box, however, the hair is restrained or flattened within a head covering reminiscent of the Egyptian nemes without the lappets, worn by the Pharaohs. Blending in with the background to avoid distracting from the complexity of the inexpressive face, the hair contributes to the portrait’s quiet certitude. Intimating sexual history and sensual serenity, the braided strands dangling down paradoxically give a priestly quality to the face. Whatever is spiritual here, however, is contained within a mesh of physical desire and the transcendent, liberating experience of orgasm. The head inclines forward in a contemplative manner, and I can’t help but see a strong combination of the masculine and feminine in the hair’s length, whether covered or not.
In several portraits Macri completely hides or binds the hair, eliminating its power and suggestiveness as in Memento Mori, a portrait of decay, depletion and dying, or the seeming death that awaits revivification in the spring. Similarly in The Bat, the Birds, and the Beasts, the artist emphasizes the wing-like glasses, a crucial detail, and the feathery costume, all in black. The hair has disappeared beneath a tight black cloth or turban-like hat because in this instance hair might sabotage the portrait’s Aesopian concept. A glance at the fiercely fine Prospero Sycorax Ariel confirms Macri’s astute and careful attention to hair. Any indication of civilized control or polite society and styles acquired in salons is swept away by the upsurge of hair, eyebrows, and the dirty unshaven face. Prospero depends upon the details of hair as much as it does on literary associations and colours of the forest floor or stagnant water.
I recently came across a photo of myself taken years ago when I sported a full beard and pulled back my long hair in a ponytail. I did little more than trim the edges, somehow imbuing the growth with more significance than it warranted, necessary to my sense of self like an indispensable appendage. Cutting meant a kind of amputation, a loss of an essential part of me. Given the complications of swimming and long hair, I went to a barber and winced as he clipped and the locks fell to the floor. I also scaled back the beard over time. If I felt different after the shearing, I did not feel diminished.
Beards, of course, possess their own meaning in various cultures and throughout history. It’s interesting to see men today with a hefty, carefully groomed beard, a symbol of male pride and masculine potency, although my own beard was a Tolstoyan affectation rather than a sexual proclamation. I was reading a lot of 19th century Russian literature in those days, and my own religious background is Orthodox, a church of ponderous beards.
I only refer to my facial and lengthy locks because faces are somewhat bearded in several Macri portraits, for all his attention to hair on the head. We see the unshaven cheek, several days’ growth, or at most a short and clipped beard. In the magnificent black and white portrait Zoophily, all the hirsute details of the face (beard, eyebrows, eyelashes, and moustache) form inextricable elements of the careful composition. The chin beard in the stunning portrait Leaven’s Freedom, of which I have written extensively elsewhere, as well as that in Damo 2013, convey Macri’s concept of ever-changing personae represented by visage and hair. The fluid identity in a digital world allows us to create or re-create ourselves in whatever virtual reality we please. If we can now do that, then notions of public persona and private character become dynamic, at least unstable, if not illusory. Yes, it’s important to study the face, the central feature of his “canvases,” but if he grows or displays stubble or beard, or resorts to a metaphorical beard as in the heavily-costumed and theatrical face of Ţepeş, Macri does so because the hair is inseparable from the meaning of the picture.
I can go on since Macri’s portraits offer so much imagery and scope to pursue this topic. Many cannot be mentioned here, so I must come to an end. If I may, I should like to add a note about Macri’s hair and theatre. Sometimes I imagine rightly or wrongly that the artist has a cabinet of wings and hairpieces, or is blessed with miraculously fast-growing hair, given the changes from one portrait to another. What is more theatrical and terrific than the use of hair in Self-Portrait 2011? Hair loosely mounded on top of the head with thick strands dangling down the face like the tentacles of jellyfish, the image leads me to think of classical Greek mythology and tragedy: the rage of Medea, or the shock of Jocasta, or a prophet/prophetess in a trance answering questions in abstruse riddles, or a hairy demi-god about to fornicate with an acolyte. It can be whatever a viewer sees, based upon the evidence of the details, because Macri provides no clear definition or tell viewers what to think.
Despite its title, it would be an oversimplification and erroneous to regard the portrait as that of Macri, the individual man himself. It is a representation of one of his “selves,” an example of his fluid, expressive and mysterious work, imbued with notions of the ever-changing self, despite all our efforts at interpretation. The hair in Self-Portrait 2011 acts as a partial covering, a stylized veil, or symbolic curtain, the eyes peering through, the identity unclear or multiple behind the tendrils or bars. Revealing little about himself, the man in the portrait sees through our own guises and penetrates the surface of things, surely one of the functions of art.
I also sense a touch of “madness” in the face, an effect created and heightened by the hair. I mean madness as metaphoric or figurative, rather than psychological or clinical: the madness of poets writing under the light of the moon; the madness of composers hearing a symphony in their head; the madness of mystics communing with God; the madness of scientists replicating experiments in search of truth; the madness of artists in the ecstasy of creation, and not least of all, the madness (let’s agree to call it passion here) of viewers obsessing over the art. Regardless of one’s opinions, Macri’s hair is dramatic in Self-Portrait 2011, as it often is in other portraits: theatrical, inexhaustible, inextricable, intrinsic, instructive, and sometimes just plain messy fun.
Kenneth Radu has published books of fiction, poetry and non-fiction, including The Cost of Living, shortlisted for the Governor General's Award. His collection of stories A Private Performance and his first novel Distant Relations both received the Quebec Writers' Federation Award for best English-language fiction. He is also the author of the novel Flesh and Blood (HarperCollins Canada), Sex in Russia: New & Selected Stories, and Earthbound (DC Books Canada). He is currently working on a collection of new stories.
Hirsute Pleasures: Getting in Adamo Macri’s Hair
Essay by Kenneth Radu - March 2017
Essay by Kenneth Radu - March 2017