Maren Hassinger’s “Interlock” sculpture looks like a coiled stretch of rope hanging on the wall, its frayed ends a tangle of strands. As first encountered when entering the galleries for The Spirit of Things, her compact career retrospective at the Baltimore Museum of Art, it looks like something you might be able to lift off the wall, toss over your shoulder, and head out for a day of fixing fence posts on the range. Only as you approach do you see that it’s made of wire, a rebar lasso, which instantly transforms the piece in the brain. It evolves from pliable to rigid, from Louise Bourgeois soft to Richard Serra obdurate, though it never settles for being just one or the other. “Interlock,” which dates from 1972-’73, becomes that unnerving thing that unites opposing ideas, simultaneously looking both approachably tactile and defiantly unyielding.
Spirit documents how the New York-based Hassinger has carved out her own territory in the wide-open spaces between those extremes for nearly half a century, exploring the vulnerabilities that mountain when unstoppable forces meet immovable objects. Those forces in her work typically involve such complicated human-made morasses as history, politics, gender, and race; the immovable objects, human solidarity and the vanishing natural world. Hassinger has explored these themes in a variety of media—drawings, installations, performance, sculpture, video—unified less by a gestural element, quirk of vocabulary, or choice of media than her gift for the power of understated, quiet revelation.
Take “The Veil Between Us,” a mixed-media piece that hangs across two walls in a corner of a gallery. What looks like a thick blanket of decaying Spanish moss becomes a knotty curtain of paper chains on closer inspection. The strands are made of newspapers, specifically The New York Times, the ostensible paper of record that delivers those first drafts of human history in words and images. Hassinger twists Times pages into DNA-like helixes, turning the paper’s human stories into visual echoes of those genetic strands that transmit the information that make humans.
In a recent BOMB magazine interview with curator Lowery Stokes Sims, Hassinger notes that the paper twisting makes her think about memories of weaving as a Campfire Girl in the Los Angeles area where she grew up, where her Bluebird group included a racial, ethnic, and religious mix: black and white, Jewish and Asian girls. They would weave things together, such as cushions made from newspapers folded into long, skinny strands that are interlaced to make a thick mat, examples of which are included in the exhibition as “Sit Upons.” The art-making process here is a call back to an interweaving of young people’s lives, suggesting a power in numbers, just as braiding threads together to make a rope makes them stronger together.
What “Veil” conveys visually, however, is a more complicated. The many different lives that are physically twisted and woven together become a physical barrier, a wall-like divider. And in our era of fake news, the very veracity of journalism is called into question depending on a reader’s point of view. Newspapers, and the stories they tell, divide as much as they unite.
This intellectual and emotional journey that “The Veil Between Us” invites—looking like something in nature, understanding the personal narrative invested in its creation, alighting to the tensions these the piece evokes—points to one of Hassinger’s sliest allies: Time, and its capacity to destroy all things. Not only does the longer you sit with her work lend the punch it lands a larger oomph, but longer the work exists, the more its power evolves.
She striped the walls of one of her exhibition’s walls a thick row of pink plastic bags, a material she’s used over the years for site-specific installations. For Spirit, the piece is called “Embrace,” where each bag is, as the wall text notes, “filled with love notes and inflated with human breath.” When Hassinger was a finalist for a Baltimore art prize in 2008 that included exhibition at the BMA, she created a giant triangle out of the pink plastic bags called “Love,” where each bag was also inflated with human breath and included notes bearing the word “love.” First encountering it felt like being enveloped in a monumental hug. Over the course of the exhibition, however, air seeped out of the bags and they deflated a bit, and this still-imposing, gallery-devouring installation seemed to shrink in stature and intensity—a reminder that love, so powerful at first kiss, can be ephemeral and dissipate over time. Hassinger invites a subtle effect of time to give her work a disarming weight.
Here, “Embrace” runs around the gallery’s walls and creates an environment for watching “Birthright” (2005), Hassinger’s roughly 13-minute documentary video about meeting her father’s younger brother for the first time. In it, we watch Hassinger learn about her heritage, which anecdotally includes black, white, and Native ancestry, and listen to her discuss how race has affected her relationships with family members and self. “Embrace” physically surrounds “Birthright” viewers, and visiting the exhibition multiple times over its run has had a similar effect as “Love”: blood relations can feel powerful one moment, less so the next, and understanding where you come from doesn’t always mean you’re comfortable where you are.
The Spirit of Things is curated by BMA Senior Curator of Contemporary Art Kristen Hileman and co-sponsored by Art + Practice, the Los Angeles-based art gallery and social services provider cofounded by artist Mark Bradford, bridging two parts of Hassinger’s life. Born and raised in southern California, she went to Bennington College in Vermont for dance and ended up studying sculpture, and returned to California to earn her MFA from UCLA in the early 1970s. She started collaborating with performance artist Senga Nengudi, moved to the New York City area in the 1990s, and eventually landed in Baltimore in 1997, when she became the director of the sculpture graduate program at the Maryland Institute College of Art.
Though she moved back to New York in 2010, teaching for 20-plus years in Baltimore put her fingerprints on a wide berth of sculptural activity coming out of the city. This mini bio bears mentioning because Spirit is her first solo show at the museum of record in the city she called home for more than two decades, an exhibition that spotlights the ambitious range and emotional intelligence over the course of a distinguished, and still evolving, career.
Maren Hassinger: The Spirit of Things runs through November 2, 2018, at the Baltimore Museum of Art.