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Shapes in Silence 2019

Tom Henderson (b. London, 1976) is a visual artist whose work examines the boundaries between painting and sculpture. As a trained sculptor who always wanted to be a painter, this enquiry has become an end in itself and lead him to deliver another possibility, which one could call ‘sculpted paintings’. What are sculpted paintings? These are artworks that stay on the wall, an aspect relating to painterly sensibility. But when looked at, the works ask the viewer to gravitate around them. And this relationship between the viewer and the artwork recalls the experience of sculpture. This is the agency of Henderson’s practice: his compositions are alive, they demand the viewer to notice their changing behavior according to his physical position and the light that falls on them.

Henderson works in series, a procedure that allows him to investigate deeply the technical and conceptual aspects he focuses on. His practice can be divided into two main streams: flat and texturized series, especially Flatland and Drypoint, and others containing tridimensional elements such as Arclight and the Corner Series. The finest details of his compositions result from the variations caused by his use of plexiglas, the paint and the manipulations he performs on and within the colored surfaces. The results encompass transparent and/or opaque surfaces caused by the juxtaposition of colors and layers formed by the different textures of line, color and transparency.

Flatland, a series conceived in 2017 and 2018, displays monochromatic painted surfaces that at first glance appear smooth and stable, yet through the viewer’s wandering a three-dimensionality is revealed. This variation is born from his manipulation of the surface through texturizing brushwork coupled with subtle striations through the paint when still wet. Flatland allowed him to revisit the history of the grid, an influential structure within modern art. As Rosalind Krauss advanced, the grid’s hostility to narrative promotes silence.[1] Several abstract artists have used the grid’s structure to perform discoveries, despite the difficulty of such a task. In Henderson’s Flatland work, the fluid freehand lines that run through the painted surface destabilize the grid’s silence and promotes a connection with the drifting viewer. This is most evident in the works After You and Elsewhere, a white and black pair of works that may also work as a diptych. The series evolved to works such as Luck of the Devil, a triptych of pure colors: red, yellow and blue.

The Drypoint series of 2018 is an exercise of meticulousness where lines are purposefully scratched into a plexiglass surface with the aid of a technical tool, the dry point needle. These repetitious incisions are then charged with paint and finished with a principal surface colour. The industrial tool, which originates in printing, allows him to control the composition, while configuring it a modern allure. The resulting surfaces looks smooth; the scratching performed onto the front and back of the plexiglas delivers compositions that display a sense of movement and softness that is most commonly found on textiles fabrics.

Henderson’s work teaches the viewer that painting and sculpture are not antagonistic media, but rather that they can coexist in one and the same structure. It equally reminds that modern, industrial materials can equally recover handcrafted techniques, and recall the smoothness of timeless media such as textiles.

Dr. Leonor Veiga
Lisbon, 2019

[1] Krauss, “The Originality of the Avant-Garde,” 7.


A New Angle in Art: Tom Henderson

Tom Henderson’s works reveal an artist painting his way out of a corner. Hovering before the wall, these translucent, angular objects clearly owe their existence to painting and to the history of painting. And yet they are often made from materials more associated with sculpture, sometimes with lush, painterly additions. The Plexiglas and coloured resin that compose these works are both the support and the medium, an intriguing conflation and an elegant solution to the questions that have plagued, perplexed and prompted some of the greatest artists of the last hundred years: not just what to paint but, in the age of photography and abstraction and readymades, how to paint.

Development after development after development, from the Daguerreotype to X-ray photography and thence to Photoshop, from Cubism to Dada and thence to Abstract Expressionism, from Warhol’s silkscreens to Minimalism to the crisp objectivity of Andreas Gursky… The goalposts in art, and in painting in particular, have been shifted with alarming speed during the past century and a half, creating a turbulent, exciting but all too often bewildering theoretical landscape. In an era of digital reproduction, appropriation and artworks left to create themselves, how can a painter manoeuvre? What path is left open? Several artists have found Gordian Knot solutions: Gerhard Richter with his paintings after photos, and his later permutations, Roy Lichtenstein with his own parallel Pop and Lucio Fontana, who burst open the entire hegemony of the fiction of the two-dimensional picture plane by tearing open the canvas itself.

From one perspective, Henderson’s works show the reverberations of Fontana’s pioneering developments. Fontana declared: ‘here we have: foreground, middleground and background… to go farther what do I have to do?…I make holes, infinity passes through them, light passes through them, there is no need to paint’.[1] Fontana brought the viewer’s attention to the fiction of the picture surface by viewing it with the detachment of his sculptural background and against the backdrop of the new era of space travel which had allowed Man to view the planet from above. Henderson’s own works, hovering from the wall, allowing light to pass through them to various degrees, able to be viewed from behind, push Fontana’s innovation to a new level. These works compress foreground, middleground and background within their own fabric, and also allow light to pass through them.

Henderson has created his own starting point, an arsenal of tools and materials that are not necessarily associated with painting itself. Beginning with an aluminium armature, essentially a corner, the measurements of this base of operations become the foundation stone, or the DNA, of the work to come. The initial point of departure in that angle, that corner, prompts the decisions regarding scale and colour and luminosity that follow, sometimes even resulting in the incorporation of more ‘corners’ which proliferate throughout the fabric of the object, sometimes resulting in complex shapes that turn their own corners, breaking free from the hegemony of the rectangular frames of old. Henderson’s material of choice is Plexiglas, which maintains its shape seemingly unsupported and is subjected to transformations, for instance the sanding that creates subtle contrasts between the opaque and the clearer, more translucent areas. In addition, Henderson has increasingly added areas of largely monochrome paint, sometimes beginning with a Mondrian-like crispness on one or two sides, but ending with a delicate, feathered blurring of one edge, bringing an emphasis to the sensuality of the paint, disrupting the rigid angularity that informs and dominates the composition and paradoxically emphasising that same angularity: it acts the exception that proves the rule.

The tactile quality of the paint and the effect of the streaking brushstrokes on the surface of these works reveals one of Henderson’s key influences: Pierre Soulages. With his paintings, often created using an incredibly viscous black paint applied with contrasting thicknesses, often over a background that featured warm, glowing colours that appear almost backlit, and all the more so because of their contrast with the oily black brushstrokes that tend to dominate the composition. The paints in Soulages’ dark pictures are sometimes opaque and sometimes glistening: he has managed to use a deliberately restrictive palette – sometimes consisting of black and little else – to create paintings that nonetheless celebrate both colour and light: their reflective surfaces become additional arenas for an opalescent play of light. Henderson’s brushstrokes allow the artist to involve colour in a similar process, sometimes pushing their own iridescence to the fore and sometimes serving as a foil to the surface. At the same time, Henderson’s works take to a new level the inner glow that derives from the colours in the background of Soulages’ earlier pictures.

The intellectual processes at play in the creation of Henderson’s works echo those of the great so-called Neo-Dada painter, Jasper Johns, who often began with deliberately arbitrary materials which he then used to dictate the final form of the painting-object. This was especially evident in his Catenary works, which reconfigured the basic building blocks of painting such as the wood of the support, paint, canvas and even the string hanging at the back, bringing the working tools of the genre to the viewer’s attention. Johns has explained of canvas, motif and other such elements: ‘I think it’s just a way of beginning’.[2] This can be seen taken to a new extreme in Henderson’s tic-tac-toe responses to the initial aluminium corner that gradually evolves into his work. They become elegant and inevitable solutions, echoing Johns’ own views:

‘I think one has to work with everything and accept the kind of statement which results as unavoidable, or as a helpless situation. I think that most art which begins to make a statement fails to make a statement because the methods used are too schematic or too artificial. I think that one wants from painting a sense of life. The final suggestion, the final statement, has to be not a deliberate statement but a helpless statement’[3].

It is this ‘sense of life’ and in particular the sense of life of the artwork itself that is embodied in Henderson’s glowing objects. As with so many of Johns’ paintings, their crisp geometry invokes a language of logic yet belies the emotional substrata that pulse beneath – or rather throughout – the surface. In this sense, it comes as less of a surprise to discover that the corners were themselves inspired by the Canadian photographer Robert Polidori’s images of the Palace of Versailles. Rather than focussing on grandiose landscape and interior shots of the palace and its grounds, Polidori’s tangential glimpses of that Baroque masterpiece show the cracks in walls where doors are hidden, the rectangular patches in walls where pictures have been removed, the right-angles of antique lock casings. Often underpinned by a structure of angularity that contrasts vividly with the swirling baroque elements, Polidori’s images were one of the points of departure for Henderson, in particular because each picture clearly comprised a fragment of a greater, unillustrated whole. Those patches of wall at Versailles, those lock casings, those doorways all imply, through the presentation of a mere fraction, a greater entirety. It is this sense of the fragmentary illustration of an implied yet invisible entity that Henderson explores in his works: sensuous brushstrokes which appear as striking traces of human activity on their rigid, angled supports suddenly reach a seemingly unexpected end, picture surfaces come to abrupt yet deliberate halts. These truncations are a form of feint: Henderson’s works appear as seemingly geometric sections of some larger, unspecified system, as though they were visions, fleeting mirage-like clues emanating from some underlying, unseen structure. These shards of crisp colour, highlighted with the gestural yet controlled brushstrokes that are such a vivid proof of life, thus emerge as glancing elements of a vaster, more universal tableau.

[1] E. Crispolti, `Spatialism and Informel. The Fifties’, pp. 144-150 in Crispolti & R. Siligato (ed.), Lucio Fontana, exh. cat., Milan, 1998, p. 146

[2] Johns, quoted in D. Sylvester, Interviews with American Artists, London, 2002, p. 159

[3] Johns, quoted in D. Sylvester, About Modern Art, London, 1997, p. 465