Walnut Street, 2016. Gouache on paper. 15" x 30"
MARY HENDERSON's photorealistic oil paintings of crowded gatherings have taken on new meaning in the Covid-19 era, but she has been painting protests, political rallies, music festivals, outdoor concerts, conventions and sporting events since 2014. She strips the backgrounds away, emphasizing the physical gestures and facial expressions of the people. Viewed together, these works are an opportunity to contemplate the events that bring strangers together. Mary earned her BA in Fine Arts from Amherst College in Amherst, MA and her MFA in Painting from the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, PA. In 2018, she was a finalist for The Bennett Prize and has been awarded several grants from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. In 2019, her work was included in group shows at Foley Gallery (New York, NY), Thinkspace (Los Angeles, CA), Muskegon Museum of Art (Muskegon, MI) and Tiger Strikes Asteroid (Philadelphia, PA). Her work is represented by Lyons Wier Gallery (New York, NY), where she has an upcoming solo show in 2020. Mary lives and works in Philadelphia, PA.
OtherPeoplesPixels: How does the hyperrealism of your paintings support the content of the images?
Mary Henderson: It’s my *hope* that it supports the content, but figuring out what degree of detail to include is always a trial and error process. Because I am interested in the specifics of gesture and body language, I feel like I have to be fairly precise about anatomy. At the same time, I don’t want the content of the work to be drowned out by the technique. So there’s a balance. Painting always involves abstraction and distillation, but I lean towards more detail as a way to draw the viewer in and invite more active participation in interpreting what’s going on.
Fervent, 2017. Oil on panel. 20" x 40"
OPP: Have you always painted this way?
MH: Some of my earlier paintings were actually a lot more intense in their level of hyperrealism — grains of sand, strands of hair, etc. Eventually that became less interesting for me to execute. I look at a lot of different kinds of work, but when it comes to the process of making a painting, there seems to be a sweet spot for the level of detail that I find engaging. Too much is… too much, but I love getting sucked into patterns and textures. I’ve tried to paint more abstractly and more gesturally in the past, but it hasn’t worked for me. That could always change, though.
Cups, 2017. Oil on panel. 30" x 60"
OPP: Are all your images sourced from social media? Do you set out looking for particular types of images? What kinds of images repeatedly draw you in?
MH: Right now, about half of my paintings are based on my own photographs, but I also draw from social media and image searches. It’s important to me not to paint spaces or groups that don’t feel familiar to me in some way, so I try to choose images based in part on that idea. I look for images that remind me of people that I know or experiences that I’ve had. I also try to make selections for a diversity of tones. Some of the images I work with feel very positive and joyful, while others are really off-putting. I try to balance those positive and negative associations. Finally, I try to avoid anything that is too current or too raw. I don’t want to exploit or sensationalize or “rip from the headlines.” Obviously the images that I’m using have connections to this moment, but they aren’t taken from this moment.
Winter Coats, 2017. Oil on panel. 12" x 24"
OPP: Crowds of people are the unifying factor in recent paintings of protest rallies, music festivals, parties—did I miss anything? Are all these paintings part of the same body of work?
MH: The images are taken from all sorts of events: the types you mentioned, as well as games, conventions, neighborhood events (I’m sure I’m also missing something). They’re all part of the same loose body of work, although the paintings have definitely shifted a bit since I began working with these images in 2014. This is the longest I’ve stuck with a series in the course of my career, so I guess it makes sense that the work would evolve.
Climbers, 2016. Gouache on paper. 15" x 30"
OPP: Can you talk about your choice to pull the backgrounds out?
MH: I started removing the backgrounds because I wanted to focus on what people were doing versus who they were. I think the decontextualization slows down the reading of the image a little. I’m also interested in how we make judgements about activities and behaviors. We are so primed as humans to make quick decisions about people, and to assign in- and out-group status to people we encounter, based on very subtle cues. I’m trying to interrupt and interrogate that process a little. For the same reason, I take out most identifying details. Not to make a point (“don’t be so quick to judge!”), but more out of curiosity: how do people communicate shared identities in the absence of clear markers?
Listening, 2017. Oil on panel. 20" x 40"
OPP: Do you think of your paintings as critical, celebratory, neither or both?
MH: Definitely both! I am, by temperament, not much of a joiner. Becoming part of a large group is something I usually only do out of necessity, either practical or moral/political. So even the paintings that are mostly about joyful solidarity probably have some sense of discomfort running through them. At the same time, I want my paintings to feel humane, even when I have a negative reaction to my subjects.
OPP: It’s been almost three months since the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a pandemic. How are you coping? How has your studio practice been affected?
MH: I was doing a residency at Hambidge in Georgia when the pandemic hit. It’s so quiet and remote there, so I was a little removed from everything as it unfolded. I found out that my kids’ school was cancelled while I was there. Normally, I work from a studio outside my house, but I had to bring everything home and try to set up a makeshift studio where I could work while also homeschooling my first-grader. (I have a teenager, as well, but he’s fairly self-sufficient.) It’s been kind of a mess, but I’m still making work—just really slowly.
Microphone, 2016. Oil on panel. 20" x 40"
OPP: Protests are happening everywhere, and they look different with most protesters wearing masks. Are you working on any new paintings in the context of protests to defund the police? What do you hope these paintings communicate to viewers?
MH: The pandemic and the current protests feel too fresh for me to approach directly! Obviously, current events have completely recontextualized my paintings. If I’m making paintings of crowds while my neighborhood is literally being tear-gassed, it’s going to affect the work in some way, and I’m certainly not trying to be apolitical as an artist. But I am trying to channel my immediate responses into political action, rather than into my work. I can’t control the context in which my paintings are viewed, and it’s been weird to find the ground shifting under me like that. But that’s fine and inevitable (even if I sometimes feel like I want to tell people that I started this series over half a decade ago!). I am sure there are artists who are making great paintings of people in masks right now, or making very profound work that directly addresses the current protests, but I don’t think I’m the right person for that job. When I think about images of protestors being beaten and tear-gassed, it feels hubristic for me to try and take something like that on. Those images stand on their own.
To see more of Mary's work, please visit www.maryhenderson.net.