Icons in Ash: Cremation Portraits
Ubu Gallery, NYC
Reviewed by Phoebe Hoban
Somewhat hidden, the small, subterranean Ubu Gallery, on 59th Street, close to the East River, is the perfect place for the haunting show by Heide Hatry, known for her use of unique or transgressive materials–such as fashioning flowers out of animal offal, something she artfully did in a previous series.
Hatry, whose father died on the family’s pig farm in Germany under dubious circumstances (she has wondered if it were suicide; he drowned in pig manure) and who has lost a number of friends in the last decade, wanted to find a meaningful medium to treat that most taboo of subjects: death. She couldn’t have come up with anything more appropriate than what she ultimately used to create the 24 portraits on display at Ubu.
The small, finely rendered pieces, which have the warm and intimate glow of daguerreotypes, were created using the ashes of the deceased themselves, given to her by surviving family members, some of whom commissioned the work. Hatry has chosen to depict the dead at various ages, irregardless of the time of life at which they actually died. So, for example, a man who died at 50 in a motorcycle accident is shown as a smiling boy. The author James Purdy is captured as a young man (from his passport shot), in middle age, and, finally, as quite elderly. Each portrait bears the subject’s name. But while the date of the work is indicated, the dates of the subject’s death and birth are not. This imbues the series with a poignant sense of mystery.
James Otis Purdy
Who are these people, skillfully portrayed in miniscule particles of their own cremated bone? Quite literally, Hatry has captured their essence. By using an actual physical part of her subjects to represent them, she has, in effect, created a visual synechdoche. Or as the artist puts it in the book of essays that accompanies the show, Icons in Ash, these are “images that do not merely represent but which are their subjects.”
Hatry creates the portraits by first placing a photograph of the deceased on a bed of warm beeswax, and pricking tiny pinholes to provide an outline of the image. She then uses a scalpel to gently lay the particles of ash—along with pulverized birch coal and white marble dust, for contrast–onto the wax. She compares the process to laying a mosaic. The finished piece resembles a textured charcoal drawing. Like those that are preserved in an urn or sprinkled out to sea, the ashes serve as a memorial to honor the dead. But through Hatry’s alchemy, which actually bonds them to an image of their source, they are given a strange second life.
At the gallery, three of the portraits have been supplemented with a third dimension, by including various personal objects belonging to or evoking them. A bookcase standing next to the triple portraits of Purdy is full of his published books. A vitrine honoring Hatry’s father, contains, in addition to his portrait, a number of talismen, including a pig embryo, a voodoo doll, and a black crow. The portrait of Stefan Huber, a writer and friend of the artist, is surrounded by favorite books from his private library, including volumes by Kafka, Schnitzler, ETA Hoffman and Nabokov.
Fayum Mummy portraits
Like the mesmerizing Fayum Mummy portraits of ancient Egypt, about which the late John Berger once wrote, “The Fayum portraits touch us as if they had been painted last month,” Hatry’s cremation series projects a powerful immediacy. Indeed, two of the portraits are of known art world personalities (as well as close personal friends of the artist): Roberto Guerra was a documentary filmmaker who died in 2014; his dark, intense gaze greets you as you descend the stairs into the main room of the gallery. And Lance Kinz, a popular art dealer and gadabout, who committed suicide in 2015 at the age of 64, has the same engaged, provocative look in his eyes that he had during his lifetime.
Icons in Ash is on exhibit through March 7, at the Ubu gallery, 416 E. 59th Street, Manhattan.
Phoebe Hoban has written about culture and the arts for a variety of publications, including The New York Times, New York Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, Vogue, Vanity Fair, GQ, Harper’s Bazaar, ARTnews, and The New York Observer, among others. She is the author of three artist biographies: Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art, (1998), published as an e-book in May, 2016; Alice Neel: The Art of Not Sitting Pretty, (2010) and Lucian Freud: Eyes Wide Open, (2014).