If you ever meet Costa Mesa-based sculptor Laurie Hassold, you’ll be struck by her stature and beach-blonde good looks. When she begins to speak, you’ll realize she’s friendly, upbeat and intelligent. And when you see her artwork, you’ll realize that beneath the exterior, there’s a darkly macabre soul screaming its way to the surface.
Hassold’s sculptures—once referred to as “scary vaginas” by her artist husband, Jeff Gillette—can evoke thoughts of nightmarish creatures that scramble after you, baring fangs and wielding pincers. They are skeletal (exo- and internal); yes, vaginal; and also primordial, even though Hassold contends they are visions of things to come.
“I’m interested in ‘post-extinction forms,’” she says. “In other words, things that get to live at the top of the food chain after we bow out. They’re a futuristic animal, the next step of evolution, and they get to gather themselves up from what we’ve left behind.”
What humanity has left behind, in Hassold’s three-dimensional work, is mini-trash: cigarette butts, doll parts, monkey-shaped cocktail-glass garnishes, googly eyes and wedding-cake brides—all the tiny, processed specks of litter scattered across the planet and filling in the gaps between crumbling buildings and rotting automobiles. Hassold’s creatures, survivalists that they are, have absorbed it all.
In Radial Birth, a gang of trolls dances along a vertebrae trail around a birth-control-pill case, which is mounted atop a real wasp’s nest. In another sculpture, real bones surround a faux hornet’s nest made from discarded cigarette filters. Mixing our manmade junk with nature is Hassold’s prime obsession, and mimicking with wire, clay and florist’s tape what naturally occurs in our world is her mission.
“I really go nuts over nature,” she says. “It’s just unbelievable to me. I like being awed; I’m a wonder junkie, and I’m really attracted to the edge between beauty and the beast—the horror going on in your own back yard and the beauty at the same time.”
What’s going on in the back yard of her modest OC home these days is mostly just an irritated cat on a leash (he’d jump the fence and end up certain roadkill otherwise), but Hassold’s childhood home was something other than status quo because it also housed her general-practitioner father’s office. Hassold spent hours in the office—her version of a playhouse or tree fort—looking through microscopes and sitting in the room with patients while her father cut moles out of their backs. She did not vomit.
“Once, he took me into a hysterectomy, and they were cutting out this woman’s uterus and ovaries and performing a courtesy appendectomy. They put it all into dishes and handed them to me so I could feel them. I remember my dad saying, ‘If you get dizzy or nauseated, we can’t help you, so just go lay down.’ He thought he had a little doctor on his hands!”
It could have gone that way. Watching the cutting and blood-letting of hacking through skin desensitized Hassold to gore and later prompted her controversial 2003 performance piece at Crazy Space. A nurse drew pints of Hassold’s own blood, which the artist used to paint an enormous, beasty Rorschach blot on the wall. Onlookers stood in awed silence.
“It was on watercolor paper, too,” she says with a laugh. “Do you know how that paper smells when it’s wet? I can only imagine what the people thought—I have stinky blood!”
In her new series, less blood and more burrowing is the mantra. She absent-mindedly refers to her studio as a cave, but the term is potent: Her latest pieces are swampy, oozing caves. In Green Frost, a maniacal skull burrowed inside a slime cave beckons to a maiden who stands on the edge of her own ominous fate.
“I’ve been getting into this cave thing lately, dripping things—different states of liquid—and there are probably a whole lot of personal ‘change of life’ reasons for it. This idea was also the inspiration for the piece at Laguna, which is based on mammoth bones from the Ice Age—a future ice age.”
The piece she refers to—Reading the Bones, part of Laguna Art Museum’s “Art Shack” exhibit—is notable both for its archaeological bent and because it’s not a shack, at least not the kind we’ve come to recognize. One could contend it’s an animal shack, an encasement and home for organs, emotions and life force. But it might also be a shack to some newly resident spiders—like the one Hassold delicately removed from the famous “scary vagina” piece hanging on the wall of her home when our conversation segued into literature and, finally, zombie movies.
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As I recalled my favorite cannibalism films, starring both the undead and the still very much alive and very much hungry for college-girl flesh, Hassold squealed and shuddered. She also promised to rent Terror at the Red Wolf Inn. Apparently, there are still some things that creep even her out.
Laurie Hassold exhibits as part of “Art Shack” at the Laguna Art Museum, 307 Cliff Dr., Laguna Beach, (949) 494-8971; www.lagunaartmuseum.org. Open daily, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Through Oct. 3. $15; students/seniors, $12; children under 12 and museum members, free.
This profile appeared in print as "Creepy Crawly Creatures: Costa Mesa artist Laurie Hassold reanimates and reclaims a host of horrific life forms."