re-er, Perrotin, Hong Kong, 2017
Following exhibitions in Hong Kong, New York, and Paris, Perrotin is delighted to present John Henderson’s second solo show in Hong Kong. John Henderson’s oeuvre has long revolved around the problematic of modernism, abstraction, and the painterly gesture. In this sense, he could possibly be situated in the context of a larger wave of process-based abstraction in recent years, one that is marked by the flatness of the picture plane, a preoccupation with process, and improvised gestures indexing the real.Yet what sets Henderson apart is his reflexive distance to the painterly, putting the romance of the authorial gesture and the assumption of an unproblematic spectatorship into question. On the one hand, the artist admits the performative element to his work, but on the other, he problematizes it by “translations”, “documentations”, and erasures. Understanding painting as performance is, of course, nothing new. Since the heyday of Abstract Expressionism in the 1950s, when the critic Harold Rosenberg declared that henceforth paintings would be “an arena in which to act… What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event”, the performative gesture in painting has been a guarantee of presence. In the present age, this guarantee of presence also firms up the value of painting in the face of digital and new media incursions. Henderson’s oeuvre, however, problematizes this performative gesture, frustrating a simple relation of the picture plane to the real, or more specifically, the link between the painterly gesture to the biographical real invoked in much process-based abstraction.
His earlier series of works, for instance, involved what the artist called “translation” or “documentation”—basically an extra layer that stymies a simplistic interpretation of the gesture of the artist’s hand (along with whatever the narrative imbued therein). In Casts and Types (where the artist casts sculptures of his original paintings in various metals) and Recasts (a parodic series where such paintings are finished with metallic spray paint), Henderson combines the individualistic expressivity of the brush with the industrial procedures (of the foundry, in some cases)—and thus constitutes a cool-headed, formalist resistance to some of the pitfalls of process-based abstraction. One is also reminded here of the post-structuralist philosopher Jacques Derrida’s notion of “under erasure” (sous rature). In relation to writing, this is “to write a word, cross it out, and then print both word and deletion,” or yet “the mark of the absence of a presence, and always already absent present, of the lack of the origin that is the condition of thought and experience.” The notion of “under erasure” is the “strategy of using the only available language while not subscribing to its premises.” Henderson’s approach certainly points to a sophisticated deconstructive doubleness: presence/absence, origin/copy, and so on, which ultimately also opens up questions about the present condition of painting.
The title of the show, “re-er”, is therefore worth elaborating on, with the prefix “re-” indicating repetition (“re-new”) or a backward motion (“re-trace”), and the suffix “-er” indicating a comparative degree (“flatter”). By putting expressive abstraction “under erasure”, Henderson complicates it, distances himself from it, and thereby places it in play, generating a thoughtful complexity that gestures at possible future paths.
In a way, we can see this in almost literal terms with Untitled Paintings, where Henderson expressively and meticulously applies each layer of paint, before removing the paint with trowels, palette knives, and hard rollers to achieve a flat surface. This additive subtraction renders a rather haunting, ethereal atmospheric picture plane that alludes to loss, ruination, and memory (one could think of Freud’s wax tablet model of memory); the original mark-making hand cannot be seen and yet the traces are still visible. While this palimpsestic effect complicates the authorial or painterly presence, the slight bezel on the edges might also highlight the constructed nature of the images.
The new series Reticle (model) presents paintings on MDF panels with thick white impasto strokes overlaid by blue grids of different scales. While the white background might for some viewers be redolent of the works of Robert Ryman, or else suggests a modernist “clean slate” that negates prior values, the artist sees it almost as “models of paintings” that he performs according to pre-existent templates and languages. Meanwhile, the blue grids are printed directly onto the painting and—over a caesura—on the “frame” (note that the frame is in fact part of the painting). Certainly, as the critic Rosalind Krauss argued back in 1979, the grid is an “emblem of modernity” in art since the early 20th century—one sees this from Malevich and Mondrian to Ellsworth Kelly and Sol Lewitt, among many others—linking up science and rationality (graphs and maps) all the while declaring the autonomy of the realm of art (turning away from representation and figuration, turning its back on nature). That the blue grids extend across a break to the edges of the “frame” suggests a “centrifugal” reading of the grid here: the grid extends infinitely outwards, forcing the viewer to reckon with the world beyond the frame. The title “Reticle”—the lines in the eyepiece of optical devices—is also illuminating, for it suggests a particular position for the viewer, as though there were an extra digital layer of the camera interceding between the eyes of the viewer and the painting itself; this reading is also reinforced by the different scales of the grids, alluding to shifting foci of vision (for example, when zooming in or out). Together with a consciousness of the history of painting in the last hundred years, these paintings also evince an awareness of how paintings are viewed—these days, more often than not through the camera of a mobile phone.
In a way, this train of enquiry extends from Henderson’s earlier photographic series Flowers, (where he had photographs painted over, then digitally scanned, and fictively displayed in a simulated space, and then finally printed as photographs of unique copies). Such a complex overlay of painting and photographic processes direct attention to the possible manipulation of images and serve as notice to viewers to observe closely and pay attention, all the while aligning the aesthetic with the cognitive and the critical. With Reticle (model), juxtaposing the personally expressive strokes and the rationality of the grid generates a tension between spontaneity and construction, while positioning the modernist emblem of the grid in relation to the digital ushers in questions about the importance and condition of painting in the larger, almost overwhelming expanse of visual culture and digital imagery.
-Daniel Szehin Ho