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March 30, 2020

Artist Spotlight: Mary Henderson - On Crowds, Spectatorship and Other Forbidden Activities

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Deborah Kostianovsky

See the exhibition here


Now that we have been forced to forgo physical connection and closeness with those around us, will we be more appreciative of opportunities to personally connect when this pandemic is over? Will we put more value in our connectivity, our collective human spirit? Will we take the time to inquire about the well-being of our neighbors? Will we actually see the beauty in parks and trees and springtime rather than rush past it on our way to work? Now that the earth has taken a breather from our emissions, ongoing pollution, and human commotion, as if the earth itself is relaxing on ventilatory support, will we vow to take better care of our planet? It’s almost as if the earth, in all of its natural infinite wisdom, has justifiably pushed a ‘reset button,’ restoring the natural order and letting us know that we must curtail our activities for not just our own survival, but the survival of this planet. Is it possible that, aside from any religious or political views, this is not just a calamity of coincidence, a global pandemic that occurs every few hundred years, but instead part of the universe’s plan?  Could this be the earth’s way of getting us to stop taking the resources of this planet for granted, stop taking needless flights across the world for business, stop the tsunami of trash and waste that we leave everywhere in our wake? Perhaps we are witnessing a metaphorical flashing signpost, one of those highway roadblocks, indicating that we must slow down our progress and focus on what’s most important. As observed by Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York, it’s almost as if our mother earth, in all of her wisdom, is sending us all literally to our rooms, asking us to reflect upon what we’ve done. And if we don’t, we’re in for a good spanking (or another wave of virus). I believe ours is a benevolent universe, ready to forgive, yet this worldwide calamity of such enormous proportions should shake some sense into us and make us rethink our relationship with this beautiful planet. And with each other.
Mary Henderson’s photorealist paintings deftly explore the collective human spirit as she depicts people engaged in mundane activities that bring them together; these detailed paintings not only remind us of what we are lacking as we practice social distancing and quarantining, but also elicit a newfound appreciation for simple things. Spectators depicts a crowd of people intensely watching an event off in the distance. We cannot see what is capturing their attention, yet it’s clear that it’s an event that brings them together. Most of the spectators are wearing satisfied grins, as if they are enjoying the mood, the crowd, the event they are witnessing. Perhaps it’s a concert, or a show. We don’t know, but what we are drawn to is the everyday manner of their watchfulness. It’s not special or unusual, but it’s very relatable. As Henderson states: “The paintings depict their subjects at unguarded moments of vulnerability, reflection, or preoccupation.” By meticulously painting these ordinary scenes, capturing an image we may not even have remembered if we were in that crowd, they become elevated to a fascinating study demanding our scrutiny and interest. It’s as if this painting forces us to be in the moment, akin to the power of meditation, in which we find ourselves staring at details of our lives that we don’t normally see. And it is very obvious that scenes such as these are conspicuously absent in our lives at this moment. Observing this scene could make us wistful for what we don’t have right now. But perhaps, viewing these paintings, so full of color and spirit, can help us appreciate those moments of closeness and togetherness more than ever.
Spectators, Mary Henderson
Several other paintings by Henderson similarly convey a frozen moment in time, as if it’s something we can literally defrost and live through vicariously in times like these. The artist states she focusses on a particular subculture in her paintings, including spectatorship, assemblies, protests, weekend pursuits. These are coincidentally the type of events that are forbidden during this pandemic. And they are all situations which could provide a sense of comfort through shared goals and activities. The exquisitely detailed, photographic quality of her paintings are based mostly on digital photos, which often convey unexpected details, unwieldy artifice, and casual everyday scenes. This contrasts with the act of painting, which is meticulous and carefully studied. As she states: “The tension- between the highly ephemeral nature of contemporary visual culture and the more permanent archetypal aspirations of the figurative artistic tradition- has become a central concern of my work.” And she is able to skillfully convey that elusive space between our casual digital culture and the art of traditional painting. Her paintings are composites of various photographic sources and may include personal renderings of herself, family, or friends.
In Broad Street Run we see throngs of people in the act of running a ten mile race, seemingly oblivious to being watched. They are each absorbed in their own space. Having run a marathon, I am painfully aware of the intense focus required, yet would never have been able to recall an exact moment like this one. We are of course used to the speed and ease of capturing ordinary moments digitally. But more than a mere photographic portrayal of the event, this is a strikingly detailed artistic rendering of a moment in time, an artwork that took much longer to make than the slice of time captured by the canvas. As such it’s a reminder of the power of old-fashioned figurative fine art, yet it’s packaged in a form that is repurposed for our modern digitally saturated world. Similarly, Farmer’s Market captures two people engaged in conversation, while a third woman looks elsewhere out of the picture frame. It’s another moment in which the subjects are caught off guard, in true vividness and detail. We as viewers feel like we are standing on the edge of that scene, feeling the heat and sun, flanked by crowds and noises. And as we sit banished to our rooms, an age-old tradition among the wisest parents, perhaps we can gaze at these paintings and not only see the crowds and spectatorship, but also see a singular moment of time which captures a sense of spirit and connectivity. It’s a connection that links us to each other and our planet. And we might remember to appreciate those simple moments going forward as we navigate and get past this worldwide crisis.
Broad Street Run, Mary Henderson
Farmers Market, Mary Henderson
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