Review: Villain or victim? Comic or tragic? The unsettling art of Kathleen Henderson
We aren’t beauties, we humans. At least not on the inside, not always. Kathleen Henderson practices an excruciating realism when it comes to our species. In 35 blistering recent drawings at Track 16, greed, pride and vanity play out in oil stick on paper — raw impulses matched by raw, urgent line.
Henderson, based in the Bay Area, hasn’t shown in L.A. for five years. Much has happened since then. In scene after tragicomic scene, Henderson registers the dismaying state of the union and the planet.
Two figures under an umbrella pose as if for a classic, nature-as-souvenir snapshot made comic by one woman’s awkward-sexy stance and made tragic by the green rain spit down from the clouds, the drops curdling into clots that litter the bare ground.
In “Team Building With Rabbits,” a man wears nothing below the waist, jacket and tie above, and on his face a dumb grin of self-congratulation over the carcasses clutched in each hand.
Henderson toggles astutely between representing concealment and revelation, power and vulnerability; sometimes the conditions oppose each other, sometimes they reinforce.
Most of her subjects, for instance, are hooded, their heads reduced to lumpy white domes with clumsily cut-out eyes and mouths. But those overly simplified features read also as unguarded, brutally transparent expressions. Henderson has referred to mummers’ costumes as a source of the hoods, but the cloth covering carries multiple and varied associations, from innocent Halloween ghost to devious criminal or torture victim. The drawings derive a distinctive, searing energy from that constant oscillation.
Henderson borrows not just from popular culture but also history and myth to render the tainted spirit of the here and now. A current favorite is the ancient Greek goddess Artemis of Ephesus, a protector of mothers, traditionally portrayed with a chest barnacled by breasts. Henderson shows her naked, onstage, before a curtain drawn as if of streaked blood — again, strength and vulnerability uneasily fused.
Many of the characters appear at microphones, engaging in some sort of public address, or posing with their conquests. Like good 21st century citizens, they are at once performing and exposing themselves, through the masking device of persona.
Are we doomed? Perhaps, perhaps not. But ridiculous creatures we most definitely are. Henderson allows for levity and also tenderness, even if skewed: A man kneels to kiss a dismayed ghost, outlined in red on the ground; the self-loving Narcissus is drawn as an earnest clown.
Henderson’s work might be pared down, but it is sociologically dense. Her palette of dilute pinks and greens verges on the sickly. Her line is insistent. Like the figures it circumscribes, it flaunts an innate lack of grace.
As with the mummers, her model too may be the Greek god Momus, who personified mockery and blame, exercising an essential role as social critic. According to one of Aesop’s fables, Momus faulted the design of the human body for hiding the heart inside. It should be visible, he felt, the better to detect its corruption. Henderson too believes in exposing humankind’s base motivations — exploitation, domination — and does so brilliantly, whether stripping her characters or cloaking them.
Where: Track 16, 1206 Maple Ave.. No. 1005, L.A.
When: Wednesdays-Saturdays; ends Feb. 1
Info: (310) 815-8080, track16.com
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