Last month I ventured to the Lodge Gallery to see the solo exhibition of Kent Henricksen. I navigated through the embroidered wall works on canvas and stoneware face jugs impaled on golden stakes placed throughout the space, all of it encased in an immersive painted environment, a blue and gold celestial backdrop that created a fluid world. I began to wonder more about the artist, his background, influences, and processes — so I sat down with Henricksen to ask him.
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Sarah Walko: In your exhibitions you often create an amalgamation of opposing forces, the past and the present weave together and form powerful imagery. What role does art history play alongside the broader world history references? What is your process with image references?
Kent Henricksen: Art history plays a minor role in the work compared to a broader sense of history. The depiction of human violence or emotional behavior of humans are the main historical references that I use — often representing a troubled world. Some of the images I use are well known art historical images, Lucas the Elder or Jorge Posada for example. I’m often looking for images where change or some sort of transformation is taking place. It could be people traveling, being born, or dying. In the studio I have a vast library of historical images, but the Picture Library on 5th Avenue was a major reference for me for years. I feel like I exhausted the library though and it became a hindrance in a way. The rare book room is also a great resource. I often go there and look through obscure old books that i have become aware of and photograph the prints from the book. I can then put the image into photoshop and manipulate the size and orientation.
SW: There is a strong mythological theme in your work and you create non-linear narratives. Can you talk about the role of story in your work? Do you place yourself within that mythology as you are making? Do you form specific characters that you may or may not reveal to the audience or is leaving a kind of familiar yet ambiguous narrative what you are interested in and a part of the process when making the work too?
KH: Two things influence the role of storytelling in my work — the art classes I took as a child and my college education. My childhood was filled with taking scenes from the bible and drawing them out in detail. One of my favorite drawings, which I still have, is of soldiers killing all of the first born children. It looks as though I could have made it last year — the soldiers have these pointy helmets and are wearing armor —all you can see are their faces. In college, instead of following the fine art path I chose to study English Literature. Though I left the church in high school, my interest in story telling and the Christian Mythology continued. One class that helped distance the stories in the bible from real events was the Bible as Literature — taught by a very thoughtful atheist teacher in Boulder, Colorado. I’m not interested in putting myself in the work. I’m more interested in the viewer bringing herself to the work. The viewer always brings their own experience to the pieces. I am not referencing specific characters in the work, though I do collect images from newspapers of masked or hooded figures. You see masks or hoods every week in one format or another — military, religious, or used as some sort of protection. I have a bulletin board of the clippings that I see every time I go to the studio reminding myself that this is our world.
SW: You mentioned you studied English Literature, do you write also or do you channel all of your stories into your visual art?
KH: I do a lot of short story writing. Often take a character from a short story I’ve read and retell the story from the point of view from the character I chose. For example, at the back of the New York Times Magazine there is the Lives Column — a one page story usually about someone’s personal history — often over coming of some sort of difficult situation. I like changing the story to hear what the other people think of the character or how they react to what the character is going through.
SW: Your embroidered works are meticulous. How long does it take to make the canvas pieces? How long do installs take you when you do immersive environments? Do you think the immersive environments are critical, connecting all the pieces so they are not individual stand alone pieces?
KH: The large canvases can take up to six months to make. The collecting of images and silk-screening is a relatively quick process — it’s the embroidery that can take months. When I’m creating an environment for a gallery exhibition, I’m on a really tight deadline. Usually there are only three or four days to get the walls and floor, as I want them. It’s always a tense situation — because I can only imagine what the finished room will look like. I can never make the entire room before hand to see what works and what doesn’t. For this particular show at the Lodge, I had to guess what size dots would work for the space and go with dots I had already created on the individual pieces. The application of the dots was also tense — because I had never stenciled with gold paint or done such an intricate design on such a large area. It was very intimidating — luckily it all came together. I did have to rework the main stencil for the dots on the first day. The dot stencil I had originally made had dots that were too far apart — I add to make a new stencil and continue. Prior to stenciling the walls, I had created environments with wallpaper
SW: Your work has been described as one of entering a shamanistic world. What role does healing or catharsis play in your work?
KH: I was trained as healer from an early age — starting at the age of nine. I was used to channel good energy and push away the bad energy or demons out. I was raised in and went to the Roman Catholic school in Connecticut. The priest of the parish, Father Robert Ladamus, was the only priest doing exorcisms in the church in Connecticut at the time. He worked closely with exorcist couple known as the Warrens. It was a messed up place.
Here is a link about them.
Though the Warrrens are known for paranormal activity and hauntings, they were deeply involved in exorcising people and objects with the help of Father Ladamus and a group of boys, including myself. We often recited the prayers of deliverance as part of the ritual of exorcism. As young boys, we were also used to spiritually cleanse the priest and the Warrens. We often sat holding hands around a table in the basement of the Warrens house in Monroe, CT reciting prayers of deliverance. This was the early 80’s. The basement was use to store the objects that had been exorcised. One object that stands out in my mind is the Raggedy Anne Doll, one of three they had, that was sewn into a case so that it couldn’t escape. The doll was known for walking around at night and scratching the chests and backs of the owners while they slept. The idea of thread being used as restraints and a seemingly hand made item used to cause destruction really kept with me. The idea of an innocent object creating disturbing results was very powerful.
SW: You just mentioned you left the church in high school, something that seems to really have been at the center of your upbringing. What made you leave at that point?
KH: Simply put — the church became a dangerous place — I had to leave. Father Ladamus was a known pedophile. Luckily, nothing happened with me, but a lot of my friends were gravely affected by him and the church. I left when I got to high school and met a group a likeminded people.
SW: Do you study alchemical imagery as a part of your references for your work?
KH: I was interested in it for a time. I did a show at Paul Kasmin in Seoul, Korea based on images of Duality. A lot of the imagery came from obscure books taken from photos I took from the rare book room on 5th Ave. The images were mostly of serpents channeling the male and female energies that developed into something known as Cosmic Consciousness. It was a difficult show and with challenging imagery.
SW: Can you tell me more about the stoneware face jugs that were in the show at Lodge?
KH: The stoneware face jugs are a new project this year though I started working with ceramics about 5 years ago. My show ‘Disharmony in Blue and Gold’ is an investigation or a meddling of the The Peacock Room at the Freer and Sackler Gallery in Washington DC. The room, painted blue and adorned with golden fighting peacocks, was designed to display the ceramic collection of it original owner — Frederick Leyland. For my installation, I was interested in expanding the idea of conflict and showcase my own ceramic work. I used the gold painted wooded spikes as ‘furniture’ to display the work. The teeth are made from granite cobble stones from Broome Street that I smashed up and broke in teeth-size bits.
SW: What is your next project?
KH: Right now I’m in a show at the Kode Art Museum of Bergen, Norway. This December I’m doing a solo project booth at NADA. It will be a smaller version of Disharmony in Blue and gold. Also, Todd Alden Projects is publishing an edition of my work for NADA Miami.
Disharmony in Blue and Gold ran September 5–October 5 at the Lodge Gallery (131 Chrystie Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan).