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Art review: Kathleen Henderson at Rosamund Felsen

June 25, 2010 | 12:50 pm

300.TooBig_HendersonEvery show of Kathleen Henderson’s feels like a privileged glimpse into the artist’s dark diary. Or is it our culture’s diary? Or humankind’s in general? Henderson’s drawings are tough, brutal even, sometimes funny, almost always absurd. They are crude, raw, spare, ambiguous, and truer to life than the highest resolution photograph.

In her third show at Rosamund Felsen, Henderson fills the gallery with oil stick drawings and a small selection of tabletop sculptures fashioned of wax, paper, wire, paint and tar. There is much continuity between her new and earlier work, but also a bit of change — a firmer sense of place in some of the drawings, an expanded use of materials (more touches of color, and dilute tones complementing the linear forms, acting as off-register echoes or shadows). As ever, Henderson’s work has a searing immediacy. It seems simple — just a few characters, roughly outlined, on each sheet — but its implications and interpretations ripple outward indefinitely.

Verbal or visual threads tie some of the images to familiar events or subjects in the news. It’s hard to see any of Henderson’s hooded figures without recalling the disclosures about Abu Ghraib, and from there, thinking about torture in general, perpetrators, victims, anonymity and accountability. The phrase “Too Big to Fail” has become shorthand for any number of collapsible giants of industry. Henderson uses it to title a spot-on spoof of testosterone-driven hubris: a scene of four men in acrobatic balance, one standing on the ground and supporting the other three, perched on his thighs and shoulders. What stabilizes the whole? The central figure’s enormous penis, extending from his fly to the ground like the third leg of a tripod.

Phalluses make another appearance in the equally satirical “Small Celebrants and the Emergence of a New Poly-phallic God,” an image your imagination might be able to conjure, but only if you leave it open to both the outlandish and the mythic, for this new deity is not only multiply endowed in the region you’d expect but also shares a trait with Samson. His hair is an unusual source of strength. Yeah. Those aren’t dreadlocks.

300.Doctor_Henderson Ringleaders and performers of all sorts cavort across Henderson’s pages in strange, incongruous combinations: two dancing showgirls strut their stuff next to a doctor prepped for surgery; a man in tails, poised like a lion tamer with whip in hand, faces us while behind him lies a woman with hands fat as boxing gloves and her legs spread open wide. The world of these drawings is a weird, wicked circus, where private acts of amusement double as public forms of entertainment, and both take on the air of less benign scenarios, power plays involving subjugation and violence.

The pressure of Henderson’s line on the page bespeaks a desperation to understand why we are the way we are, why we do the things we do; the line’s path is at once committed and halting, bold and uneasy. Her work is far less literal than that of Hogarth, Daumier, Goya or Golub, but it feels driven by the same compulsion to expose vice, injustice, tragedy, vanity. Her “Self Portrait With Family and Friends and Jesus Suffering Christ” brings to mind the barbed humor and relentless social critique of Ensor. 

Among the sculptures, only “Holy Ghost” matches the concentrated, edgy power of the drawings. The small, haunting tableau in milky white wax, paper and wire, seats an amorphous shrouded presence atop a donkey pulling an empty cart. Henderson, who lives in Northern California, touches frequently on biblical themes, cataclysms and plagues of epic proportion. An Everyman in one drawing is beset by locusts. Another sculpture refers to the story of Noah and the flood. In her work as in the great stories she draws from, physical survival is one thing, but moral survival quite another, more complicated and inevitably much harder. This is an emotional ordeal of a show, as tough as it is necessary.

-- Leah Ollman

Rosamund Felsen Gallery, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 828-1075, through July 3. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

Images: Too Big To Fail (top) and The Doctor and the Dancers. Courtesy of Rosamund Felsen.