In 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, Peculiaropens 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 high-quality 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 eight-ply 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.”