Maren Hassinger

Daily Mask
2004
American, born 1947

16mm film
3:30 min., color, sound
Courtesy of the artist

Donna Conlon - Editor
Lori Kimboro - Editor
Ford Allen - Producer
David Flanigan - Lighting and Camera
Andrew Bailey - Music
C.B. Rawicz-Majcherski - Props

For more than four decades, Maren Hassinger has dedicated much of her sculpture, videos, installations, works on paper, and performances to the investigation of the relationship between the natural and industrial worlds. As she incorporates everyday materials, such as wire, rope, newspapers, plastic bags, petals, and dirt, in her art, Hassinger‘s work also points to social equality through minimal, yet poetic, uses of gestures in her media. As she has stated, her work “focuses on elements, or even problems—social and environmental—that we all share, and in which we all have a stake…. I want it to be a humane and humanistic statement about our future together.”

Born 1947 in Los Angeles, California, Hassinger attended Bennington College as a dance major, but graduated with a degree in sculpture in 1969. She then enrolled in UCLA to focus on sculpture, but completed her MFA in fiber arts in 1973, after being recruited to join a newly formed class on the subject. In 1984, she moved to New York City as an artist-in-residence at the Studio Museum of Harlem, and until recently was the Director of the Rinehart School of Graduate Sculpture at the Maryland Institute College of Art, Baltimore, a position she held for more than twenty years. Hassinger returned to New York City where she currently lives and works. She has exhibited widely and internationally, with solo exhibitions at The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York (2018–19); Art + Practice, Los Angeles (2018); Baltimore Museum of Art (2018); Spelman College Museum (2015); Schmucker Gallery, Gettysburg College (2010); Contemporary Arts Forum and Alice Keck Park, Santa Barbara (1986); and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (1981). Hassinger is represented by Susan Inglett Gallery, New York.

As a graduate student in the early 1970s, Hassinger “thought nature was on its way out” and experimented with natural and industrial materials to create work that appeared to be trees, bushes, branches, and other organic objects. Inspired by the expressive, minimalist sculpture of Eva Hesse, Hassinger also obsessively sought ways to elicit emotion through her manipulation of industrial materials. After discovering wire rope in a junkyard in Los Angeles, it quickly became one of her favored, signature mediums, which she used as a fiber to sculpt forms that recall plant and marine life.

In addition to sculpture, Hassinger created and participated in numerous performances with her longtime collaborator Senga Nengudi, a dance and sculpture major who relocated to Los Angeles from Chicago. Together they developed performances in various locations throughout Los Angeles, including parks, gardens, construction sites, abandoned buildings, and even underneath a freeway overpass. Hassinger, Nengudi, and a group of African American artists also would form Studio Z, a collective that produced cutting-edge, experimental art and included Ulysses Jenkins, David Hammons, and Houston Conwill.

During these early years, Hassinger, created the monumental sculpture River (1972), a thirty-foot-long serpentine placement of chain link and hauling line for ships. Rather than liquid, Hassinger presents a body of water with chain and rope—tools used to counter or control the element they represent. The media alone conjures up histories of slavery, lynching, incarceration, and forced labor. At the same time, it also recalls conditions experienced by people regardless of their race or ethnicity. River evokes the widespread loss of nature and suggests its evolution into industry, or the tension between the two. 

In Walking (1978), Hassinger anthropomorphized the wire rope by arranging 148 two-feet-high bundles of the material upright and directly on the gallery floor. As the short bunches appear to be in mid-gait, the visitor also becomes conscious of her own movement as she must carefully navigate her way through the space. Walking suggests the objects are “vegetation come to life from a material derived from the manufactured world.” Likewise, Twelve Trees (1979) represents what its title names—a dozen trees made from unraveled wire rope, which Hassinger planted in a row along the 405 Freeway near North Mulholland Drive in Los Angeles, California. Again, the barren branches of the trees symbolize the destruction of the natural world and its replacement with human-made forms. At the same time, the work also might suggest the potential of human industry and our shared determination to persevere despite the decline of the environment.

Hassinger would put simple, yet elegant and whimsical, twists on the mundane and the natural in the 1980s. In 1982, she executed Pink Trash, a performance and public artwork in New York’s Central Park. Hassinger removed piles of litter from a field and replaced the debris with crumpled pink paper. Rather than resignation, Hassinger reacted to littering by calling attention to it. Visitors to the park could not ignore the sight of bright pink paper strewn about a field of grass. As Hassinger explained, “For me the color pink is not about being a woman, but more about choosing a color with the power to compete with the green of nature.” While Pink Trash emphasizes this contrast, the connotation of pink as a color of joy, love, and peace cannot be denied. Thus, the piece suggests Hassinger’s attempt to “harmonize the rift between civilization and the natural environment via an art gesture.”

Hassinger also created striking installations in which she inserted natural elements into interior spaces, covering the walls or hovering over the heads of visitors as in Heaven (1985) and Blanket of Branches (1986). The former is a room with the walls overlaid with preserved and scented rose leaves, and the latter consists of tree branches hung overhead, eighteen inches from the ceiling of the gallery, as a canopy. Instead of replacing nature with a durable industrial material, in these works, Hassinger incorporated nature into the white cube and employed ephemeral materials that challenge traditional notions of sculpture.

Nonetheless, Hassinger continued to use her signature wire rope in the 1990s. She created pieces that replicate or suggest natural forms for installations wherein the wire appeared to bend and move. Three Bushes (1989), which is composed of life-sized sheaves of steel, was installed amidst overgrown bushes in the Socrates Sculpture Park in Queens, New York, a park built on a former landfill site. Paradise (1990), an indoor installation, consists of multiple rows of leaning, wavy steel cables set into a large rectangle of concrete on the gallery floor. The cables seem to undulate as if being blown by the wind.

The 2000s would see Hassinger work primarily with two materials: the New York Times newspaper and pink plastic shopping bags. Regarding the paper, Hassinger has said, “The New York Times is the paper of record, a material that represents all of us in it.… I want to use materials that deliberately contain and relate to everyone, so it’s about a collective consciousness.” She then created Rainforest (2004) and The Veil Between Us (2007/2018), both of which feature enormous curtains of long twisted and knotted lengths of newspaper hanging down the wall. Rainforest shifts between a natural and cultural artifact as Hassinger presents a jungle made from the hands and words of humans. Whereas, the thick tapestry of The Veil suggests our difficulty in looking past the conflicts and politics of world events to appreciate our commonality.

Distressed by the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Hassinger presented her physical response to the disaster in the six-foot diameter floor sculpture Wrenching News (2008). She twisted and coiled, literally “wrenched,” strips of newspaper and ironically converted stories of global events, often ones of devastation, into a therapeutic symbol. Placed on the floor, the work at once appears to be a cushion, waiting for the viewer to rest her weary body upon it, as well as a mandala encouraging spiritual contemplation. Ultimately, a response to an agitated state resulted in a form that evokes peace and calm.

The installation Love (2008/2018) also takes a surprising twist on a mundane material. Hassinger covered the floor, walls, and ceiling of a corridor with hot pink shopping bags. Each bag was inflated with human breath and contains a note printed with the word “love.” The piece creates a padded room that protects all visitors with a feeling they likely desire and envelops them with an emotion that often seems elusive.

Arguably in contrast, Daily Mask (2004) refers to a starkly different form of protection, or rather barrier, that we assume ourselves or has been imposed upon us. Accompanied by the sound of climactic drumming, the video begins with Hassinger sitting in a black room staring gravely into the mirror before she applies black grease paint to her face. She draws lines and patterns down her nose, around her eyes, and across her cheeks like a warrior going into battle. She then fills in the lines, eventually blackening her face completely. Finally, with her eyes closed, Hassinger tilts her face upward to the camera positioned overhead. She opens her eyes and mouth to grin widely at the viewer before going back in repose.

Daily Mask subtly yet effectively recalls multiple types of masking—the everyday performance of self, masks of various African cultures, and especially the blackened faces of nineteenth- and twentieth-century minstrelsy. Both artist and object, Hassinger masks herself to suggest the ways in which these many layers of identity, histories, and narratives have affected her personally. Nonetheless, as her evolving appearance continually shifts between one of self-representation and social stereotype, her final false smile slyly calls into question our expectations and perceptions of others. —Kanitra Fletcher