The German pop artist HA Schult has made a name for himself making art out of garbage: His “Trash People” are nothing less than a touring exhibit of life-size figurines made of trash, that he lines up like those Chinese terracotta warriors in venues all over the world. Artist Violet Skipp Haffner, whose solo show opened at Hollingsworth Gallery in Palm Coast on Saturday, is an artistic cousin of Schult’s.
Hollingsworth Gallery owner J.J. Graham, who’s often showed work that loiters in the darker recesses, met Haffner in one of his mixed media classes, he says. “I said I’d consider giving someone in that class a show to motivate them—I was hoping it would motivate them to do some work, and she seemed to be the most motivated or energized,” he says of Haffner. She got the show.
While Haffner’s work is distinctly hers, blending in many cases art and fashion, it in some ways resembles work from the Dada movement, which at one point was considered anti-art. Some of Haffner’s work utilizes collaging and poster-like elements, particularly old cutting boards, but then her style coils into medieval art, something almost completely opposite, creating illusions out of textures and lacework with metal objects. These could be called Gothic. At the same time there’s a bit of a science fiction flare evident as well.
Take “Cosmic Christ.” After looking at it for a while, one sees it’s the top half of what appears to be a featureless mannequin head and shoulders that’s been bejeweled with all sorts of pointed ornamentation, planted on an ornamented base with fake votive candles, next to which stands a couple of tiny Buddhas. Under a small golden crucifix, a rectangular mirror set in the middle of an otherwise blank face acts as a visor of sorts. Pointy blue, icicle-like protrusions surround an orb project from the crown of the head. It would take a lot of words—words that probably most of us don’t know anyway—to name everything there is to be found on the assemblage. The lasting impression made by the image is something between a futuristic space station and an armored knight, something fetishized and religious all at the same time.
So what about the title? “’Cosmic Christ’ is just because I knew this girl at the time, and she was always calling on the power of the Cosmic Christ,” Haffner says. “Well, her mother was a dark person and I was caregiver to her mother. She was difficult.” You can fill in the blanks. As it turns out, Haffner, who’s in her 60s, made her career as a caregiver to both terminally and mentally ill patients. Many of her pieces have a similar story behind them.
As beautiful as “Cosmic Christ” is, there is something excruciating about the piece, and most of everything else, too—something torturous (the origins of the word excruciating have to do with being crucified). “I am so compulsive. I truly have a compulsive disorder,” the artist says. This not only applies to the highly meticulous work itself but to acquiring the myriad materials. “I have a great many things,” Haffner says. “I have a lot. It takes a lot to pull this off. It takes an astronomical amount of stuff.” Shirt buttons, obscure doll pieces, butterfly wings, rubber alligators, and straps from a 1970s pocketbook are just the tip of the iceberg. “Nothing is sacred,” Haffner says. “I’m not a hoarder. I don’t like that word. It’s not unnecessary collecting. It’s collecting with a purpose.”
A large part of her process is giving found objects that have had their day the Lazarus treatment. In another assemblage, called “Charlotte: Made in America,” the button strip from a remote control rides down what is the back of a head. The statement behind the piece: “I feel like technology has stripped away a lot of our personality traits.” There’s one remote-control strip on the back of “Cosmic Christ’s” head, too, looking no more unusual there than that of a Mohawk on a woman riding a New York subway during the 70s.
“There are some pieces here that I like more than others, but I think there’s something here that you know everyone can appreciate and definitely, you know, you can have a conversation about this work,” Graham says.
Hollingsworth’s Petra Iston is curating the show, much of which is going to be handled like an installation. “It’s basically going to be “her world,” Iston says, reflecting a mix of small sculptures or assemblages and paintings, with a slightly more “feminine touch” in the curating than what gallery visitors have become accustomed to.
That should fit this show fine because for some reason Haffner’s work also comes off as something very feminine—while being extremely complex and belabored, it’s “very delicately done,” Iston says. “Very perfectly done. There’s not that rawness that you see, for example, with men.” It’s feminine in the same arguable way that the image of an imposing spider wending its web is also somehow feminine, no matter how scary it can be. It probably has something to do with control (understanding that any such gender-based assumptions can be as quickly invalidated as assumptions about race, religion or any other slippery allegation of identity).
Haffner is often inspired or perhaps driven by songs. She only listens to music when working, never television. On many of her paintings, she actually sketched out the lyrics on the back of the canvas, lyrics that’ll never be seen by the viewers at the gallery. “They have to be there,” she says of the words. It’s just for “my benefit,” she says, which is what her work is for to begin with. “I’m probably not creating the work for the masses.”
She has a series of homemade working clocks in the show too. The series was inspired by the song “Clocks” by Coldplay, for which the harmonies give the illusion of being optimistic and wonderful. The song was used in the trailer for the 2003 version of “Peter Pan,” when we see Pan flying with Wendy for the first time to Never Never Land. You might keep that in mind when stepping into Haffner’s first solo show.