I remember reading once about the difficulty that artists have in presenting hands in drawn or painted portraits. Many portraits feature only the head and shoulders of the subject — perhaps because including the hands is so darned difficult — and in full-body portraits the portrayal of the hands is often just a bit . . . off. The fingers are too smooth, or the thumb looks weird, or the hand is put in an unnatural pose. It takes a true master to draw or paint hands that actually look natural.
I think that is because the hands are among the most expressive parts of the human body. You can learn a lot about someone by looking at their hands, and for others the hands are as eloquent as a face or a voice. One of my grandmothers joked often about her “stubby fingers,” but her hands were essential to her interpersonal communications, as she patted cheeks and clutched elbows. Even after she had a stroke and could not speak, she would hold your hand and squeeze.
So I was fascinated by a show at the gallery at 9338 Campau, during our visit to Hamtramck last weekend, that was all about hands. Called The Visibility of Labor by Tsz Yan Ng, it featured plaster casts of the hands of the people who helped to create a single dress at a factory in China — from the pencil-holding designers to the fabric cutters to the sewers to the folders to the hands that ultimately display the finished dress. The hands are so perfectly cast that you can see every wrinkle, vein, knuckle, and ring; it’s easy to tell the hands of the older workers from the hands of the younger. You half expect that the hands will move before your eyes.
The Visibility of Labor has moved on from the 9338 Campau gallery, but keep an eye out for it at an art gallery near you — and if you’re lucky enough to catch it, pause for a moment to think about the art of hands.