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Kathleen Henderson's drawings are as searing and tough as ever

Kathleen Henderson's drawings are as searing and tough as ever
"Parade" by Kathleen Henderson is at Rosamund Felsen Gallery. (Rosamund Felsen Gallery)

Treacherous life, irrepressible life. Absurd, confounding life. The drawings of Kathleen Henderson take on nothing less. She chronicles banal, everyday debacles on up to shameful cultural crimes. Her recent work, at Rosamund Felsen, is tough as ever, searing and satirical, propelled by a variable mix of cynicism and wonder.

Henderson draws in oil pastel on paper, primarily in black, with smudges and stains of added color -- rust, rose, green, dilute blue. Her line has the urgency of a crayon clenched in the fist and pressed a little too hard onto the page. Insistence trumps uniformity, or smoothness. Flecks of pigment occasionally litter the sheet.

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There is nothing guarded here. Henderson puts her faith in the power of direct address through the raw, unpolished mark.

One of the first drawings inside the door, "Ghost/Press Conference," is characteristically odd and evocative. Henderson leaves a good deal of empty space on just about every page, but still her scenes induce a kind of claustrophobia, a sense of pressure. This one shows a classic media event, tweaked and amplified. The ghost at the podium is Halloween-simple, white with dots for features. It stands amid a crush of attendees, curious, prurient, hungry for the sensational. Is the ghost reporting back from the other side? Is the voice of authority a metaphorical phantom?

"Parade," another image that reverberates with humor and pathos, features a procession of men, women and children, marching in their underwear. Some play musical instruments. Some wield huge, primitive clubs. All are reduced to their crude, lumpy essence. This motley assembly is us. This is humanity, doing its clumsy, endearing thing. "Parade" echoes the irreverent crowd scenes of James Ensor and Diane Arbus'  disarming photographs of the marginalized and freakish.

Across some of the new works, Henderson, based in the Bay Area, writes out the text from business-page articles about economic disparity and corruption, deception, manipulation of the market.

Such pieces register quiet dismay over how things are. Others, such as "The Story of How This All Came to Be Is Long and Complicated," issue jarring, fervent cries against intangible, unidentified wrongs.

Throughout, Henderson is driven by the dynamics of power and powerlessness. Her potato-headed characters are always in some kind of danger, either to the body or the spirit. The atmosphere is ever charged with violence, instability, vulnerability.

Henderson makes sculpture too, in wax, paper and wire. The works here aren't as consistently strong as in previous shows and don't match the potency of the drawings. Two related pieces, both called "Hands," come closest. Each consists of a dense cluster of stick-skinny arms with cartoonish hands in dirty white, like slightly soiled gloves, reaching out from the wall: thickets of yearning, bouquets of want.

Rosamund Felsen Gallery, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 828-8488, through Nov. 15. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.rosamundfelsen.com

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