If it is the plumes that make the plumage, it is not the glue [la colle] that makes the gluing [le collage]...
So said Max Ernst in describing his book The Hundred Headless Woman (La Femme 100 Tetes), a masterful book of collages and engravings published in Paris in 1929. Ernst's book juxtaposes images from many sources including printed drawings, advertisements, dictionary illustrations, popular images and newspaper photographs was an inspiration for Pamela Joseph in her series of a similar name, The Hundred Headless Women. One says an inspiration because Joseph's sources are so wide-ranging that deconstructing the work is like reconstructing a car engine whose parts have been scattered on a garage floor for years.
The Hundred Headless Women was born from an earlier work by Joseph, The Torture Museum, part of the Sideshow of the Absurd, a multimedia installation emulating a circus, that traveled to museums around the United States in 2001-2005. Joseph is no stranger to the circus—her grandparents rented their farmland to visiting circuses throughout her childhood—and the experience had an indelible effect on her art. "I'd go into the sideshow tent where I remember so clearly the 'freaks' on display; they were so empowered; prouder than the people in the audience," she said. "I especially remember the woman with no arms who would paint performers, particularly the clown. Clowns, like many artists, stand apart and comment on society; they are both tragic and comedic.
Joseph has created her circus alter ego in the character of Pussy Marshmallow, a cat/woman/strongman hybrid, inspired by Joseph's beloved cat Max. Pussy, with her round cartoonish head over a woman's body in a leopard skin suit is placed in a series of perilous situations. In Catch of the day (p95), her legs and feet are bound and her arms tied behind her. In another Back seat driver, she is tied to a chair of nails (p139), while a third One piece body trimmer has her bound in a full body cage (p93). Rather than succumbing to the role of victim, however, Pussy confronts her audience with a pleasant but defiant smile.
What can the viewer read into this? The artist herself has commented how the sideshow was a pretext for exploring women, power and sexuality, specifically the "vulnerability of women, how they dare and how they survive." Perhaps one can also see in Pussy a metaphor for the challenges of the artist. It is telling that in answering the Proust Questionnaire for this essay, Joseph revealed that her heroines are Mother Teresa; her grandmother Teresa (Nonny); oppressed women in countries around the world who can't guide their own lives; and Mary Wollstonecraft (mother of Frankenstein author Mary Shelley), who in 1792 published A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.
With a few exceptions, Joseph's work has always been about women. She was classically trained and the hours spent drawing from the nude engendered a fascination with the human body. As Joseph notes, "the spectacle of woman, for better or for worse, was my own experience and was what I was and still am compelled to express." But straightforward, realistic rendering of the female body held little interest. As she observed, "I like the weird stuff, sexual things, black humor, magic, illusion and reality, games, the fantastic. Life holds for me a sense of absurdity, and maybe mystery."
The first headless woman drawing appeared on the entry wall at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art where Joseph's Sideshow of the Absurd premiered in 2001. It depicted a woman sitting calmly in a chair, her head replaced by a cylinder out of which tubes flowed into jars and some sort of electric meter. A sign proclaiming the woman to be "ALIVE" adds to the dark humor and air of chicanery. The Hundred Headless Women, the wall installation of wood-burned kitchen cutting boards, appeared in its first incarnation in 2001, though Joseph has continued to add to it over the past five years. Presented on a wall as a single piece, the installation resembles an amorphous minimalist grid. These eighty-one cutting boards wood-burned with sexually charged images are in many ways a culmination of interests, styles and techniques Joseph has been exploring since her days as an art student, infused with life's experiences dating from her childhood.
The initial inspiration for the headless women series began in 1998 when Joseph read an essay in The New York Times entitled "From Science Fiction to Science: The Whole Body Transplant," about a severed monkey's head which had been attached by sutures and tubes to another monkey's body and was showing signs of life. (2) What if a bodiless head could, as Robert J. White, M.D., who performed the experiment, asked, "retain its memory, its intellect, its perception of sight and sound, and its sense of self?" Imagining the head (and brain), as a separate, functioning, sustainable entity—one that Dr. White believed contained the mind and soul—has fascinated artists, scientists and writers for centuries, just as the bizarre idea of the "full body transplant" captivated Joseph's imagination.
Also during this time, Joseph discovered The Headless Woman magic trick in a book on the history of magic and again was intrigued by the disconnect of a smiling woman not only separated from her body but seemingly alert and cheerful. This led her to explore other, related images and subjects. In Catholic schoolgirl confessions (p21), a young girl kneels before a miniature guillotine while a disembodied arm (presumably male) controls the handle; in Feel good fabrics (p37), a headless woman levitates, four large tubes descending into buckets; Outside the box (p141) shows a woman with her head on a coil like a jack-in-the-box; Fountain of youth (p 135) is similar to the original headless woman drawing but here the coils flow from the neck like a waterfall. Joseph's titles play to the existing dark humor of the images, inherently rich with symbolism and irony. Think about the cliché of "running around with your head cut off" or the psychological implications of "detachment" from reality, as well as the absurdity of science and the bizarre cosmetic practices that women pursue in the name of beauty. In addition to the headless characters, Joseph explores other categories having to do with bondage/torture, science and magic.
The imagery in this installation comes from a wide variety of sources that the artist has obsessively collected for decades: books, magazines, newspapers and comics having to do with history, myth, sex and science. Each image is altered either by repeated drawings or computer processes and then burned onto the cutting board. The wood burning, as imprecise as it is, is informed by elements of chance outside the artist's control such as the grain of wood and the radius of the tool. Further chance comes into playas viewers construct their own oblique narratives connecting the images. As Joseph points out, "I have always been interested in erotica and sex and have used that as a source. But the fine art is the final transformation; that's what I do, how I express it."
The cutting boards themselves are also “found objects" that Joseph has amassed into a collection over the years. A wide variety of shapes—pigs, pears, gourds, bears, dogs and pineapples—scarred from a lifetime of domestic use, function as a subconscious backdrop. The home craft of wood burning combined with a domestic object like the cutting board visually collides with the prurient imagery. This exploration of the intersection of high and low art is an underlying thread that runs throughout Joseph's work. Just where is the pornography in fine art and the fine art in pornography?
Some of the pictures are so excessively weird—electric bras, chastity belts, metal face masks, women in boxes filled with knives—that the viewer wonders just how real they are. But the fact that they all originate from actual material adds to the conceptual complexity of the work. Some of the material does come from imagined sources including science fiction comic books, illustrated pornography and erotic fiction such as The Adventures of Sweet Gwendaline by John Willie. Other sources are alarmingly factual. Consider The Hidden History of Sex at the U.S. Patent Office-American Sex Machines featuring Luther Oxendine, Jr.'s sex harness with double stirrups; a collection of 1947-1973 Frederick's of Hollywood mail order catalogues offering armor-like bras, girdles and exaggerated body padding; and The Decorated Body, a compendium of scarring and facial altering in the name of beauty done throughout history and around the world. Humans' need to alter their physical presence in the pursuit of love, lust, hatred, beauty, bondage, fetish and control is reflected throughout Joseph's work.
Just as Ernst's book is not about a headless woman but about the assembling and reassembling of images, Joseph uses the conceit of collage in arranging her "found" images on "found" objects in a chance meeting that changes meaning as it is filtered through the subconscious. Joseph's fascination with the disconnect between perception and reality—one may perceive her characters as freaks but through a different lens they are heroes—has an odd similarity to Ernst's surreal sculpture and painting which explore polarization of meaning and object. Ernst shocks perception by juxtaposing incongruous objects and playing with scale relationships. Joseph begins with wildly varied depictions of women, from the exalted and phantasmagoric to the demeaning and absurd. Each step she takes—from the collecting of erotic, historic and scientific material to its final presentation on a cutting board—brings new meanings to both materials and images. "What I try to do," she says, "is take all the concepts and the images and create a new dialogue by juxtaposing opposites visually and metaphorically."
For Joseph, as with Ernst, it is not the glue that makes the collage.
Sue Scott is an independent curator and writer living in New York.
1. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes in this article are from an email interview between author and artist on March 3, 2006.
2. Malcolm Brown, "From Science Fiction to Science: 'The Whole Body Transplant,'" The New York Times, 5 May 1998.