I have seen Clarise Tara Cuda singing and weeping atop a six-foot-tall ladder as she shaves her head in mourning for the loss of her friend and mentor Alex P Huerta. I have watched Min Jung beat her body aggressively with a pole to a small, shocked audience of performers and compatriots. They are both gifted multidisciplinary artists working in various mediums to express the diverse range of emotion contained in their lives and minds.
The current exhibition Reclamation! at Core Contemporary, curated by gallerist Nancy Good, brings their work together in a spectacular way. MJ presents clean pencil drawings of a contorted, writhing woman’s body, tangled hair and limbs run amok on long scrolls of paper. Clarice, in complement, has filled the space with sculptures made almost exclusively of wedding dresses and human hair.
Both artists speak of the body—the entanglements and horrors it encounters when placed within a culture of control and misogyny. These are works created by women outside of the male gaze—or possibly in spite of it. I had a lot of questions, so I dialed up MJ and Clarice on Zoom.
This was my third zoom conference of the day, and it was the best one. Clarice and MJ had been drinking. They were boisterous and full of quips and jabs. Their personalities, much like their work, were intense and revelatory.
[This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.]
Brent: What’s with you two and the hair?
Clarice: Hair is fascinating to me. It starts with the fact that whenever its attached to the head we associate it with beauty, vitality, power, wealth. In certain cultures we can tell a person’s marital status, their position in society, but as soon as hair is removed from the head, we associate it with the grotesque the uncanny. We are disgusted by it. It even comes up in death.
I’m drawn to the way hair is used in the process of mourning and ritual. In many cultures, the hair is removed or continuously grown out in an act of mourning. In the Victorian era, people, when their loved ones passed away, they would cut the hair and make sculptures and jewelry, and you would often find a grandmother, mother, and daughter in one woven ring as a way of honoring the dead.
So, I use hair to process my own experiences of trauma, death, and mourning.
[This sentence ends with a giggle because during Clarice’s explanation, MJ has been impishly twisting her hair into pointy little horns.]
Brent: Now Clarice, you have a large series of sculptures. And MJ, your work is primarily renderings.
MJ: Brent, you know my MFA is in sculpture. The reason I’ve turned to drawing is because I do not have studio space, and drawing is the easiest one to access.
That’s why I love Clarice—because, having a show together, it really ignited me to want to make sculpture together.
Clarice: And the same things with me with drawing. Because I love figurative drawing, and especially drawing with hair, when we were starting this show I wanted to let her drawings exist on their own. She totally inspires me to want to draw. In fact, the next show we have together, we’re going to switch it, and she’s going to do sculptures, and I’m going to do drawings.
MJ: The reason that I love Clarice is because her work speaks a very similar language that I’m interested in. I thought I was doing this kind of work because I am Asian, but with Clarice it feels like that’s not the case. We are like art sisters. We are thinking very similarly. We talked about hair a lot. Clarise’s definition of hair is completely where I am, too.
Recently, what I’ve discovered about my interest in hair is its creepiness. The power of creepiness. Not gory like chopping heads, but I do love Asian horror movies. The reason I love them is because 99% of ghosts in Asian cinema are female. I thought about this a lot. It’s because in Asia, females have such little power against males. Horror is the only movie genre where females are the focal point. I love that power … in my art. So I think I’m kind of power tripping here.
Brent: I find that observation fascinating because it shows that, for women to have power, it has to be fictionalized. They have to be a monster.
MJ: Yes that, to have power beyond men, that really helps my creative process.
Brent: So back to the material. Beyond the notion of creepiness. Hair is the only part of the body that can be removed without doing damage to the body. Except fingernails I guess they count too.
Clarise: I have a jar of fingernails at home too.
[This gives way to peels of laughter.]
Would you agree that you are making feminist statements?
MJ: Absolutely. You cannot escape from that.
Clarice: I remember early in my career being told my work was feminist and questioning that, but then I realized all of my work is trying to navigate the experience of being a woman.
I originally started working with hair during my BFA at UNLV. My professor Catherine Angel challenged me not to use the female body, because it was coming up in all of my drawings and sculptures. I was led into the process of working with hair. I came back to the female body without actually using it.
MJ: My interest in working with hair began because I didn’t have much financial support when I came to the United States for my MFA, and sculpting materials are expensive. As a sculptor, I couldn’t afford it, but I had to make work for my classes, so I took interest in my body—video, art, photos. And while looking at my body, I noticed that my hair looked so powerful beyond my body. Originally I was more interested in my naked body than my hair, but hair started to become my focal point when I realized how much it compensated for many of the flaws I was finding in my work.
Clarice: Hair is something I can put into a drawing without a reference.
MJ: Yeah, the largest drawing is for this show of just hair. I didn’t look at anything. I was in a completely meditative mind state. I just imagined—what does hair look like?
Clarice: You know, hair is the only thing I can draw intuitively.
Brent: That’s interesting because it creates a bridge between abstraction and representation as a subject. … I’d like to know how your pairing came about. Was this all Nancy’s curation? Or had you met before?
MJ: We had met before.
C: When I first saw her work, I was like, “Oh my god.”
MJ: But Nancy was like, “You two have to work together.”
Clarice: We had talked about working together in the past, but Nancy really made it happen.
[They are still playing with each other’s hair. Clarice now has small antennae atop her head. One droops, giving her a bunny rabbit look. MJ’s horns are back.]
Brent: Now that you have shown work together, how do you feel you’ve influenced one another?
MJ: It makes me feel free to speak with my own voice. The work that Clarice is showing is deeply personal and private. And for me, I feel like I’ve never been that personal within my art. Clarice’s work is so honest and so bare in its emotion. For me, I need to work on being honest with myself. Clarice has that.
Clarice: When I first saw your work, I found a different level of comfort because there’s a sort of shared consciousness between us. We might have had different life experiences, but there’s this thing that connects us. I’m so enamored with MJ’s work because it doesn’t have to fit into a specific narrative about experiences. It’s pure emotion. All the feeling is in the body and in the movement. It defies logic. You move in this space between realism and surrealism with the amount of hair. There’s no way there is that much hair, but the idea of it consuming the body and the way the body is contorted is really connected to this emotional level of pain. I think we both are talking about pain but in a way that is beautiful.
MJ: I think pain is the [thing] that we are connecting through. She presents her pain, and I present my pain.
Clarice: I think what we are doing is taking our pain, we’re confronting it and transforming it into power. We’re taking this thing that is supposed to be weighing us down or defeating us, whether societally or personally, and we’re transforming it into something that is a tangible, visual representation of power through the process of pain.
[MJ and Clarice look at each other in a moment of epiphany, surprised they had not articulated these thoughts together before. MJ cuts the mood by holding up two fingers as if she’s cutting something.]
MJ: We are, like, scissoring with words.
Clarice Tara Cuda and Jung Min’s work appears at Core Contemporary Gallery in Las Vegas in Reclamation! through at least the end of January. Visit the gallery’s website for more details. Cover photo courtesy of Nancy Good, Core Contemporary Gallery.