The Fabric of images

by Mario Diacono

The play between hand-made and ready-made works has had many plots and subplots in the art of the last 100 years, mostly fueled by the conflict felt by some artists between the need to critique painting or sculpture as dead end mediums and the desire to still negotiate them as sites where an alternative mode of Self-expression or Id-expression could be developed. The novel use (at least at first sight) made by Kent Henricksen of different kinds of fabric with a decorative pattern (pieces of monochromatic toiles de Jouy, for instance, or instead of upholstery tapestries) as an ironic/provocative surrogate for the blank canvas, and therefore for a predictable pictorial re-presentation, is not an absolute novelty per se.

Andy Warhol in the Sixties, Sigmar Polke in the Seventies, David Salle and Robert Gober in the Eighties, Meyer Vaisman in the Nineties had in different moods and modes resorted to fabric and/or patterns to prevent stylistic figuration or insinuate a simulacrum of it (and traces of their works are there, visible or invisible, in Henricksen’s modus operandi). From a more distant past, Duchamp’s assisted ready-mades had of course presided over the Modernist project of offsetting the routine of artistic fabrications with a massive dose of prefabricated forms and images invested with a new role: that of providing the blunt corrective of streams of collective conscious to the overflowing of an individual’s subconscious, thus revolutionizing the very notion of meaning in art. In this multiple and cacophonic history of mutant usage of the material that connotes the semiotic dressing of either the body or the home (in the Twenties, Productivist artists Varvara Stepanova and Liubov Popova diverted the making of patterned/geometrical abstractionism from painting on canvas or paper to textiles and clothing), Henricksen introduce a voice of further disturbance.
The commercial printed fabric (lately replaced by thin linen on which are silk-screened patterns of his own design) becomes for him both an anti- and post-canvas, with its ready-constructed pop-rococo imagery of playful peasants and grazing animals, and a contextual half-utopian half-phony narrative ground, over and inside of which his own fictional characters – the KKK-like hooded Oppressor and its mask-covered Victim – embroidered in black, white and silver, can incessantly resume their assigned role, enacting scenes of submission and torture for the benefit of history. A double surface is usually at play in Henricksen’s works, that of the printed fabric or silk-screened linen saturated with the recurring pattern of a fête champêtre or a similar idyllic scenery – a derogatory support seemingly homologous to the blank canvas but in fact a critique of it, since it is infected with banal figural motifs – and the embroidery which, with its highly tactile quality, denies that fictional presumption of flatness with its quasi-three- dimensional, low-relief background. The imprinted, artificial countryside over which the artist further spins his scaring games of played-out social bondage also offers a clean, ready-made, a well-contructed space for his scattered imaginal intervention, in a sense functioning not much differently from Schnabel’s crockery of the late Seventies, early Eighties. This spatial multiplicity is compounded by the conflation of times, with the tapestries’ garden party, summoned from the pre-revolutionary world of Watteau, Boucher, and Fragonard, gingerly crashed by Bataille’s Modernist érotisme noir: as if a petit bourgeois, escapist scenography were being evoked mainly as the shattered mythology over which the artist could build a materialist iconography.

Henricksen’s incessant version of his own Et in Arcadia ego received its first major, expansive treatment in a vast work from 2004, Patterns of Behavior. Even with its clear reference to psychosociology, the title still directs us to Ruth Benedict’s epochal Patterns of Culture from 1934, since the dualism of Victim and Oppressor inscribed by the artist in the many variations of his crystallized visual theme conveys both an anthropological archetype (which surfaces in male/female’s relations) and socio-political one (as theologized by Marx in exposure of class relations). Like all of his other fabric paintings, the work is trapped in an ornamental frame – an a-historical, purely mental time/space, and that appears (like Bacon’s) to play down its presentness in favour of an illusive blend of past and future. Unlike his subsequent pictures, Patterns of Behavior, made of four equal-sized panels, presents two layers of decorative fabric: the first one is the toile de Jouy with a monochrome red pattern of youthful shepherds working, playing, and pasturing their cattle in a wood crossed by a brook – it extends for the entire length of the work, uninflected by interventions of embroidery and functioning as a ground to the second layer, constituted by 31 small panels in different sizes (they vary from 5 1/2 by 7 1/2 to 17 x 30 inches) hanging in an open order on top of it, and all showing the same images patterned on the large background panels but in a monochrome ocher, each one with the artist’s interventions. In this early major outing of Henricksen’s iconography, the many vignettes created by metamorphosing the printed scene through the superimposition of embroidery (which he does by hand, with wool thread, using a traditional hoop) show the Victim – whose head is covered by a round hood or mask, black
or white, recalling the helmet of a diver, and who is tied with a cord by the hands or the right arm or by the neck to either a tree, a pole, a stake in the ground, or the chains of a swing – with four different characters, described by the artist as a Ghost, a Robber, a Suicide Bomber, and a KKK member. These impersonations of the Oppressor wear a (black) pointed hood (as opposed to the Victims’ round masks – the two types of cover are semiotic of a masculin/féminin dichotomy that expands into other types of Manichean dualism) or are instead dressed in a full Klansman’s cloak in black or white or silver, surfacing at times in unexpected places: inside a fountain, swimming in a stream. If the woman is tied to the Gustonian shrouded figure, this one always holds the rope as if it were a leash (Abu Ghraib, anyone?), and the rope sends its repercussions all over the work. The embroidering does act as pictorial marks on the blanket configurations of the tapestry, lifting from the anonymity

of the Arcadianscape here some leaves with green, there a sheep’s head with white, somewhere else girls’ underpants with red thread. A more fully integrated treatment
of the ground/image relationship takes place in Henricksen’s most recent works, as Playing in the Woods, II (2006), also on exhibition here, where the pattern, drawn by the artist, is silk-screened in red and the entire ground is punctuated with dots of a lighter red that further pictorialize its spatial construction. The patterned design is of a garland of red and white leaves and flowers, made of two identical but slightly separated halves, inside of which inhabit two typologies of submission: the couple Oppressor/Victim, this latter in her usual round mask, white or gray, and sitting while the former is kneeling, cloaked in white or different shades of gray, and holding the round-masked figure by a rope; in the other morphology
of subjugation, the Victim stands alone as a hooded putto with a cord tied around his left leg. While the dress code of Henricksen’s iconography has a kinship with Guston’s Edge of Town (1969), and his sewing and patterning proclivities recall Gober’s wallpaper and dog bed, his work’s accomplishment has been that of throwing a spoke in the wheels of painting and still coming out with a new definition of it.