Having received her BFA in painting at Boston University in the mid-‘80s, Kathleen Henderson found a way to support herself by freelancing for the entertainment industry. Among her work experiences, she lists painting actor Don Johnson’s bathroom (a real bathroom, she insists, not a set bathroom) on the set of “Nash Bridges” and the interior of the fictional house of Professor Brainard in the movie “Flubber,” a 1997 remake. Another assignment involved creating faux Old Master paintings for the walls of an “upscale whorehouse” just north of Boston.
When she curtly states that she doesn’t paint much anymore, preferring drawing instead, the implication is that drawing is the less-prostituted medium. Painting is about turning tricks, in more ways than one if you take into account the medium’s long association with illusionism. Presumably, drawing is where something more intimate can happen. Then again, perhaps intimacy is not the issue. Henderson’s drawings are not effusive confessions. They are as staged as any painting could be. What they gain from the economy of the medium is the impulsivity and quick-wittedness of sharp-tongued stand-up comedy.
Nonetheless, for all their wackiness, Henderson’s drawings pack in a wealth of art historical references. Others have noted the connection between her cartoonish style and that of Philip Guston’s late work, but if Guston is the authorial daddy figure, Nancy Spero would seem to be the mommy. And the more distant James Ensor, the grand daddy, and Ralph Eugene Meatyard, perhaps, a great uncle. And let’s not forget the Goya of the “Capriccios.” Indeed, caprice would seem to be the overarching theme of Henderson’s body of graphic work, whose own capriciousness reflects the larger lunacy of a world whose modern pretensions only magnify the grotesqueness of the violent impulses whose grip remains as fast as when Goya decried the gulf between an incipient Enlightenment and the savagery of everyday life under the rule of the Bourbons.
Thus, in Henderson’s world, Wonder Woman makes a sad appearance as “Junkie;” a figure with an enormous schlong supports a tottering human pyramid in “Too Big to Fail;” a casting director pulls and twists the nose of a woman auditioning for the role of Pinocchio in Toronto; and dandies with whips coach dancing half-naked women like circus animals. Pretty much everyone is a clown of some sort, menacing or pathetic or both.
All these figures provide Henderson with endless occasions for gestural studies, to the point where in some instances she dispenses entirely with any suggestion of narrative and, as in “Red—11 Figures,” simply arranges figures in a rhythmical composition.
A number of the drawings here allude to the flooding of New Orleans without actually naming the city, and to the 1955 MGM musical hit, “Kismet,” which was set in a fantastical version of ancient Baghdad. The reference, presumably, is meant as oblique commentary on America’s worst military misadventure since the Vietnam War. Now that the ocean which in 2005 flooded the Gulf coast is itself being flooded with the noxious discharge from the blown-out BP underwater oil well, drawings like the Noah’s-Ark-conjuring “House/Flood,” done in tarry brown, possess an uncanny synchronicity.
The figure in “Headstand,” who could be an inverted study of Cezanne’s solitary male “Bather,” is a relatively conventional drawing, but in the context of the other’s in this show stand’s for the artist’s own symbolic orientation. In a topsy-turvy world, it is those who can stand on their heads who can best observe the world clearly. It’s a job that Henderson relishes. We should be grateful that she no longer has to paint Don Johnson’s bathroom, though perhaps without that and similar experiences she might not have honed the gently sardonic eye she casts on contemporary absurdities.
Published courtesy of ArtSceneCal ©2010