Ba ba birdy

Jenny Hon­nert Abell

Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO -

In an­cient Egypt, it was be­lieved that the ba, an an­i­mated com­po­nent of the soul en­dowed with the qual­i­ties of the de­ceased, was per­mit­ted to leave the tomb of the dead in prepa­ra­tion for the con­tin­u­ing jour­ney to the after­life. Ba-like birds with hu­man heads are a re­cur­ring theme in the works of Jenny Hon­nert Abell. These in­tri­cate and sur­real re­pur­posed book cov­ers as well as her large-scale pan­els are fea­tured in Pretty, Pe­cu­liar, a solo ex­hibit of Abell’s work, which opens at Turner Car­roll Gallery on Fri­day, Oct. 16. On the cover is her 2015 mixed-media col­lage Book Cover No. 179.

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an­cient Egyp­tian re­li­gion, the soul was con­ceived as be­ing com­posed of sep­a­rate parts. Upon one’s death, the ba, an an­i­mated com­po­nent of the soul en­dowed with the qual­i­ties of the de­ceased, was per­mit­ted to leave the tomb of the dead in prepa­ra­tion for the next phase of the jour­ney to the after­life. The ba was of­ten de­picted in flight, as a hu­man-headed bird, some­times a fal­con. Ba-like birds with hu­man heads are a re­cur­ring theme in Cal­i­for­nia-based artist Jenny Hon­nert Abell’s works. Her hy­brid crea­tures are ren­dered through a com­bi­na­tion of sewing and paint­ing with col­laged il­lus­tra­tions of old en­grav­ings culled from books. They rest on branches and perch atop the trunks of cut trees. Each of Abell’s hy­brid forms has its own per­son­al­ity, and each is given a dif­fer­ent face. “I’ve been study­ing an­cient Egypt as a hobby of mine for sev­eral years,” Abell told Pasatiempo. “I’ll tell you a lit­tle about how the hu­man-headed bird thing started, but it was be­fore I knew what the ba was. I was work­ing in a stu­dio space that was pretty small at the time. I was do­ing mostly col­lage then, not a lot of ap­pli­ca­tions of other ma­te­ri­als. There’s al­ways all this stuff ly­ing around on my ta­ble. I’m pretty or­ga­nized, but it’s a small space, and I’m tear­ing books apart and, there’s just piles of stuff. I no­ticed the torn off head of Raphael next to a bird body. It might have been ly­ing on the body. I never in­ten­tion­ally went to make a hu­man-headed bird. I just saw it, and it re­ally res­onated for me.” Abell’s ex­hi­bi­tion Pretty, Pe­cu­liar opens at Turner Car­roll Gallery on Fri­day, Oct. 16.

The show in­cludes Abell’s large-scale panel works as well as small com­po­si­tions cre­ated on book cov­ers. The cov­ers ex­hibit an ar­ray of sur­real im­agery, much of it ren­dered in re­lief by sewing and stuff­ing fab­ric into var­i­ous shapes such as the tree branches that ex­ist in some works, and the bod­ies of the birds (the heads are col­laged). “I started the book cov­ers in 2004,” she said. “It is a more prom­i­nent, pop­u­lar body of work than the pan­els in gen­eral.”

Abell be­gan to ap­pre­ci­ate the cov­ers of the an­tique books she was buy­ing for her col­lage work. “I started to no­tice how lovely some of the cov­ers were. At the same time, I wanted to come up with some­thing I could do that was smaller, which would be less ex­pen­sive and would be quicker to do.” Un­like her painted pan­els, the back­grounds of her book cov­ers are left un­touched, al­low­ing the patina and tex­ture of the old tomes to be­come part of the com­po­si­tion, which is dom­i­nated by a cen­tral fig­ure: some­times a hu­man-headed bird, some­times flo­ral im­agery, or more am­bigu­ous, or­ganic shapes with reach­ing, fin­ger­like ten­drils. Abell set a goal for her­self to do one book cover a day. “It was just kind of an ex­er­cise to teach me to be much more spon­ta­neous and just lighten up a lit­tle bit be­cause the work is in­tense. I never was able to stick to the one a day. There were a cou­ple that came to­gether pretty quick but some of them were still pretty la­bor in­ten­sive.”

There is a con­tra­dic­tory as­pect to the im­agery in Abell’s pieces, as ev­i­denced in one called For My­self, a large painted panel Abell orig­i­nally in­tended to keep to her­self. In the work, the can­cer­ous head of a hu­man sits atop the squat, plain white form of a bird, the ug­li­ness of his af­flic­tion at odds with the or­nate, be­jew­eled branch on which he’s perched. “I want peo­ple to look at that piece and im­me­di­ately think how beau­ti­ful it is. The jewels are re­ally rich, and it’s all real high qual­ity, good stuff. Then you’ve got this white, plain bird that’s got this dis­eased face. I think it’s beau­ti­ful, but what is the piece say­ing? You’ve got this bird that’s ob­vi­ously deal­ing with this hor­rific sit­u­a­tion, this face that kind of puts you off but then it’s on this gor­geous branch.”

Abell stresses the value of work­ing with qual­ity ma­te­ri­als in her col­lage work, pre­fer­ring the high­qual­ity pa­pers found in older books to the cheap glossy pages of mag­a­zines. “I never use mag­a­zines. The only

thing I use mag­a­zines for are the eyes.” The ma­te­ri­als used on the branch in For My­self are an­tique glass jewels. The branch it­self is made from eight­ply rag board, stuffed with cot­ton and sewn around the edges, mak­ing it jump from the sur­face in re­lief. “All those jewels are sewed on, and it’s very di­men­sional. I would ven­ture that the head was from a book from the late 1800s. It’s hand-col­ored, and the qual­ity of the head is su­per fine. I made the bird, and it’s a pretty good in­te­gra­tion; you can’t re­ally tell where it’s joined. The bird is also stuffed, mak­ing it di­men­sional.”

Abell made a con­nec­tion be­tween per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ences and the themes of her work when Turner Car­roll Gallery staff asked her for an artist state­ment. Abell be­gan the se­ries in 2007 when she was deal­ing with de­pres­sion. “It came up in con­ver­sa­tion that they’re about es­cape,” she said. “I started to think about it, and I still hold to that now, but I was just do­ing them be­cause, in­tu­itively, they felt right to me.” Abell’s birds em­body some­thing that seems in­te­gral to the Egyp­tian ba: a spirit un­fet­tered by bod­ily con­straints but still con­nected to the world. “Ev­ery hu­man I know wants to know what it’s like to fly, my­self in­cluded. By putting a hu­man head on the bird it al­lowed me to be able to fly away and still be hu­man. I could be above it all, but still see it and in­ter­act.”

Book Cover No. 153, mixed media

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