Art in America

Art in America

Kathleen Henderson

Rosamund Felsen

By Leah Ollman

The intensity of Kathleen Henderson’s line invests her drawings with a curious urgency. Nothing momentous or incendiary appears to be happening in the recent works—unlike previous examples, which conjure the physical and psychological dimensions of torture or the playing out of mythic struggles—but that urgency remains. Henderson draws in oilstick, usually black, pressing dense pigment onto the page, outlining figures with insistence and brevity. She seems to be channeling the impulses of both naïf and savant in these crude but incisive takes on human behavior.

Henderson’s scenarios generally take place against a stark background of blank white paper, interrupted only by the occasional dilute stain of gray or coral. Without contextual clues regarding place or time, the images read as universal, the characters within them acting on primal instincts. Many of the drawings here depict benign, common activities: wading in the sea, getting fitted by a dressmaker, doing backbend exercises, gathering around a fire. Henderson’s agitated line ratchets up the tension, as does her way of casting humans as awkward creatures, distilled to an animal essence. They rarely have necks or hair, so their forms look lumpen, unfinished. Eyes and mouths are reduced to irregular dots. The images amount to a chronicle of humanity, informed by observations, fables, fairy tales and the news.

Even the simplest of scenes can unspool a string of associations, many of them troubling. In Raincoats #1 and Raincoats #2, for instance, cloaked figures huddle together, not like ordinary pedestrians protecting themselves from the weather, but like an odd batch of captives. Their garments resemble burkas or, when the hoods are pointed, the hood worn by the prisoner in the indelible photo from Abu Ghraib or the costuming of the KKK. The raincoats, drawn in deceptively cheery blue, red, green and orange, fully enclose the characters like body bags, and they tilt and bump blindly into one another.

Throughout the recent work, the midcareer artist, based in Berkeley, Calif., sustains a tone of unpredictability. The situations she draws feel unstable, and individuals—often naked or mostly so—exude an anxious vulnerability. Prior work set that vulnerability within a scenario of the abuse of power. Here, it pervades the scenes like an atmospheric condition. Henderson’s work fits snugly, and wonderfully idiosyncratically, within the tradition of dark satire. In a series here based on Edward Hicks’s painting The Peaceable Kingdom, her pictures tweak the harmony by rendering it ambiguous, suggesting that coexistence between species is just as vexed as living among our imperfect genetic kin.

Photo: Kathleen Henderson: Untitled (dressmaker), 2011, oilstick on paper,18 by 241⁄4 inches; at Rosamund Felsen.