“SELF: New Work by Hattie Odell,” Mid-America Arts Alliance

In a world of endless selfies and identity politics, Hattie Odell’s exhibit “SELF” manages to chart new territory when it comes to self-portraiture.  “Chart” is the operative word here.

With the precision of a surgeon, Odell uses mathematics, in the form of conversion charts, to forge metal tools into what she calls portraits of “the measured self.”  The small five- piece show, exquisitely crafted by hand as well as by laser printing, took Odell two years to create.

The project began, Odell said in a recent interview, “because I wanted to approach myself as data.  So I took a picture of myself, judged it critically, and saw a certain amount of asymmetry in my body.

“I turned these judgments into math, and worked with logarithms to obtain unbiased information about my physical self.”

For “A Measured Self,” Odell turned her height into one unit which she labeled the “Hattie unit.” She then broke this measurement down into smaller divisions as they related to her body parts, which she engraved to scale on a stainless-steel pocket ruler. This piece, like all the works in the show, is mounted on an immaculately tooled metal stand with prongs that delicately support it.

In “A Levelled Self,” Odell fabricated her own version of a level (an apparatus used to establish a horizontal plane) from wood and metal, manipulating the device in the center to be slightly off kilter. A real level should register at 0 degrees; Odell’s is set at 3.5, which records the angle of the slope of her shoulders. As a result, this beautifully designed instrument hovers slightly askew on its armature, just enough to make you look twice.

“A Sighted Self,” both complex and captivating, is based on a sextant, an antique nautical device used to measure the angle between astronomical objects and the horizon to assist in a ship’s navigation. Constructed from Plexiglas and metal, with oak handles, mirrors and magnifying glasses which can rotate, Odell’s reformatted version is a fascinating puzzle piece.  The viewer can adjust the distance between herself and the artist, just as sailors could modify their positions to the constellations.

Odell’s art deliberately eschews the emotive aspects of the typical self-portrait, and wonderfully compensates for that in terms of wit.  Her designs reference historical measuring instruments while her subject matter recalls aspects of the 18th-19th pseudo-science of phrenology, in which practitioners claimed they could analyze the moral aspects of a person by analyzing their facial proportions. This subsequently led to the most appalling racist and sexist deductions.

Also present is an element of pataphysics, an absurdist French concept in which entire realms are created as parodies of the theories and methods of modern science.  In a culture which loves to make everyone feel “less than” —  as we learn from birth to critique everything from our hair follicles to our toenails —  Odell’s conceptual, minimalist sculptures hold not only our visual attention but prod us to challenge our ludicrous fixation on physical perfection.  They are also deadpan funny, no small feat given her subject matter and the times we live in.

“SELF: New work by Hattie Odell” continues through May 4 at Mid-America Arts Alliance, 2018 Baltimore. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Friday. Ring buzzer for entry. For more information, 816.421.1388 or www.maaa.org.

Elisabeth Kirsch

Elisabeth Kirsch is an art historian, curator and writer who has curated over 100 exhibitions of contemporary art, American Indian art and photography, locally and across the country. She writes frequently for national and local arts publications.

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