by Soraya Murray
Modestly tacked to the wall at SFAI’s Walter and McBean Galleries is an unexpected manifesto-like statement that captures the spirit of Mike Henderson’s mini-retrospective, Honest To Goodness. It reads: “I believe that an artist must be free of culture, geography, self, philosophies, theories, goals, tools, histories, and all the preconceived ideas. However, the artist must know all of these things in order to be free of them…What I paint comes from the freedom this idea brings.”
What unfolds in the gallery is a lifelong testament to this aspiration: that is, the constant negotiation and mastering of influences and aesthetic indulgences, the shedding of ideological crutches and prejudicial concepts that interfere with grasping one’s creative potential. To some degree, the exhibition is an alumni homecoming for the SFAI-trained artist, a sampling of his work from more than 50 years, including figurative and abstract paintings, works on paper, films and archival materials related to his musical career. The work feels searching and expressive, even while that expressiveness assumes vastly different manifestations across time. En masse, it conveys a sustained endeavor to dodge a creative comfort zone.
Henderson was born in 1944 in Marshall, Missouri. Relocating from that predominantly white farming community to San Francisco in 1965, he began his studies as a painter, earning his BFA in 1969 and his MFA in 1970. Henderson, it should be noted, is also an accomplished blues musician and alternative filmmaker, as well as a professor, having taught painting at UC
Davis for 30 years before retiring in 2012. His short films have been screened in national and international museums and festivals; his work has earned him National Endowment for the Arts Grants, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and been presented in major institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art, among many others.
In a 2015 interview, Henderson identified art-making as his birthright: “…flying to Europe, I looked down, imagined this slave ship and this person who struggled and survived so I could be this [artist and person]. He says to me, 'Well, I survived so you could go do that. Don't go licking my wounds. I did this so you don't have to worry and deal with the past. That is my burden, so you deal with your calling, whatever it may be. Follow your dreams. I didn't get a chance to follow mine but I survived so you could yours.’” In an era of intense focus on the legacy of U.S. slavery in African-American intellectual culture, this is no small statement to make about forging a relationship to that history. It speaks to the very real sense of belongingness and obligation that can hold sway—for better or worse — in the creative lives of artists of color. And it suggests a responsibility, as inheritors of historical legacies, to push toward expressive horizons, and beyond pure memorialization.
Early figurative paintings, including several made while he was a student, are illustrative, addressing overt socio-political or cultural concerns. Me and The Band (c. 1968), for example, captures the ensemble mid-performance, compacted within the frame in thickly applied layers of oil on canvas. Bearing a much different affect, Untitled Madness (c. 1960s) and the monumental diptych Scream (1966) feel much more connected to German Expressionism, with their monstrous, mutating entities baring sharp teeth and bursting from the frame. You can also detect shades of Willem de Kooning in their visceral and overwhelming violence, though Henderson’s work is never appropriative.
By the 1970s, Henderson had departed from overtly political, figurative and illustrative works, and embarked on a more capacious investigation of materiality. These acrylic and mixed media canvases feel open and expansive, exhibiting a sense of deep color-field space with free-floating, worn objects within them. Off the Coast (1977), Water Boy (1978) and Cloud Nine (1977), in particular, read as a significant departure from the previous work and what would follow. Interestingly, Henderson’s forays into abstraction do not feel absent of social concerns; rather, they show him directing his nonobjective impulses toward those ends — but without abandoning his commitment to abstraction.
In his work from the 1990s to the present, you can see the painter doing precisely that: solving formal problems, finding productive tensions and elevating the discourse of form. For example, two dark paintings, Field of Vision (1991) and Culture, Time, Sound (1994), ignite a play between a full spectrum of black materiality through the use of diverse pigments, densities and glosses. Scraping, layering and subtle variations of texture reveal these characteristics slowly to the eye. Culture, Time, Sound is activated by a back-and-forth shift between foreground and background, stabilized by a monumental obelisk of built-up concrete grey at its center and a sunny, yellow square in the upper right corner. Mirroring this general layout, Field of Vision presents an oblong grey shape, off center, and a pale bluish square in the upper left, with a thickly applied yellow circle within it. Both suggest the view from inside a darkened cave toward a mysterious opening. Though these works are resolutely abstract, the substantive materiality of built-up layers and heavily manipulated surfaces remains, providing an unlikely bridge to his earlier figurative work.
Not to be missed are Henderson’s films. Six 16mm shorts loop in the gallery, providing yet another expressive dimension to the artist’s multi-faceted vision. Completed between 1970 and 1981, these works contain incredibly concentrated and impressionistic imagery. Many feature blues guitar accompaniment with narration, performed by Henderson. Down Hear (1972), for example, takes a page out of Andy Warhol’s films, but to very different effect. Shot in black-and-white with rough cuts and intermittent extreme close-ups, the self-consciously raw, performance-based film intentionally vulgarizes cinematic artifice to reveal the hypocrisies within visual representations of blackness. Figures engage in ritualistic exorcisms of trauma around the transatlantic passage, bondage, the imposition of Christianity and the negotiation of torment. In another similar work, DUFUS (aka ART) (1970/73), Henderson cycles through caricatures of black male types, skewering prescribed roles, particularly that of the black artist, prefiguring Paul McCarthy’s Painter (1995). In a departure from examining African-American experiences and subjectivities, Look What Daddy Can Do (1972) places a white woman at its center to critique patriarchy and militarism. Moving between black-and-white and color, the film implicates a soldier (“Daddy”) in ecological destruction, as well as the subjugation of women.
Where Honest to Goodness presents a broad-ranging historical survey of the artist’s career, the forthcoming Haines Gallery exhibition, At the Edge of Paradise, focuses on Henderson’s most recent paintings. Like the patchwork Parallel Portions (2017) and the rust-colored, vertically striated As It Is Now (2017) from the SFAI exhibition, the Haines show voyages into forms that are dense, unexpected and complex. The oil-on-canvas work, Doors and Boxs (2019), with its vibrating tension between compacted vertical stripes of chartreuse, pale pinks, and powdery blues, is a standout. Dreams (2019) is an orange, red and gold composition invoking quilt-like, mended forms, achieved by scraping pigment across the canvas into rectangular, striped patches. In Every Grain of Sand (2019) mobilizes complex patterning in a deconstructed grid that activates a great sense of depth, within which patches of pale color oscillate between
foreground and background. With their densely built-up surfaces, these works display a palimpsestic materiality—but also document the improvisatory character that has defined the artist’s mature output over the past several decades.
In addition to the two above-mentioned shows, the de Young Museum will open the Tate Modern’s historic traveling exhibition Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power 1963-1983 next month, which will include one of the artist’s early figurative works, Non-Violence (1968), completed during Henderson’s student years at SFAI. In tandem, these three presentations afford an unprecedented, multi-faceted consideration of the venerated American artist’s lifelong pursuit of creative freedom.
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Mike Henderson: "Honest to Goodness" @ Walter and McBean Galleries, SFAI Chestnut Street Campus through November 17, 2019; Mike Henderson: "At the Edge of Paradise" @ Haines Gallery, November 7 to December 14, 2019; and "Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power, 1963-1983" @ de Young Museum, November 9, 2019 to March 15, 2020.
About the author:
Soraya Murray is an interdisciplinary scholar of contemporary visual culture, with a particular interest in art, film, and video games. An Associate Professor in the film + Digital Media Department at the University of California, Santa Cruz, her writings are published in Art Journal, Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art, CTheory, Public Art Review, Third Text, Film Quarterly, PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art and Critical Inquiry. Murray’s book, On Video Games: The Visual Politics of Race, Gender and Space (I.B. Tauris, 2018), considers video games from a visual culture perspective, examining how they are deeply entangled with contemporary political, cultural and economic conflicts.