Fall 2007, Degree Critical

Tuesday 12/18/2007

Kent Henricksen. Divine Deviltries (2007); installation view, John Connelly Presents, New York. Courtesy of the Artist.

Irony Reigning Over History

by Kara L. Rooney (Class of 2007)

History was suspended and irony reigned at Kent Henricksen’s second solo show at John Connelly Presents. Cherubs, angels and romantically etched figures floated and fell amongst a wall-papered background of peach and purple while nine large-scale paintings emerged from the Baroque patterned fields that lined the walls of the gallery. The result conjured a surrealistic inner sanctum where fantasy and reality combined to evoke a guise of childlike naïveté. Upon closer inspection, however, one found that these meticulously constructed pieces, most often comprised of embroidery on printed fabric, dealt with a much darker side of the human psyche.

Works such as What’s Stopping You? and They Beat an Old Man featured hooded figures with guns standing over the bodies of beaten and murdered 18th century colonials. In other pieces, the hooded characters dance and frolic with young girls or hover menacingly amid the intricate ancien regime patterns and pastels. Reminiscent of medieval executioners, Ku Klux Klan members or modern day masked terrorists, these flatly depicted personages stand in stark contrast to their victims, often taken from turn-of-the century illustrated texts, children’s readers and Baroque motifs.

When asked about the source of his hooded antagonists, Henricksen states that the Sri Lankan separatist group the Tamil Tigers were the original inspiration for the design. As his concept of pairing violent imagery with that of the decoratively ornate expanded, the artist brought in other references from history and religion. By playing with the locations of the holes in the masks (one opening over both eyes for the Tamil Tigers, two separate eye-holes for KKK members and spirits, etc.) and the application of various skin tones, the artist is able to differentiate between his characters with relatively little information. Adorned in amorphous, sack-like garments ranging in tone from white to yellowed golds, these one-dimensional symbols act as metaphorical stand-ins for a number of violent acts; from torture and kidnapping to rape and murder.

Akin to Robert Gober’s wallpaper pieces that pair the image of a sleeping white man with that of a lynched black man and Philip Guston’s hooded figures, Henricksen gets at the difficult by disguising it in the ornament of everyday existence. What’s interesting is that with such simplistic forms, the artist is able to comment on race, violence and psycho-sexual urges from a cross-cultural perspective while simultaneously keeping the paintings aesthetically alluring. Dramatic irony becomes paramount in the work, reinforced through Henricksen’s juxtaposition of craft-like mediums and pseudo-fantastic content. In the end this leaves us with two things; his mischievous world of dichotomies and the unmistakable remnants of a fairytale gone wrong.