“Untitled” is a 10″ x 8″ mixed media on paper piece by artist Erin Henry. Henry is young — the youngest artist, I believe, represented here at dk Gallery. However, this youth is only an advantage. Henry taps into a dark sophistication with deep roots in postmodernism. Take, for example, this accidental self portrait. Both mystical and also somehow completely familiar, the earthly yellows and esoteric magenta add a depth of foreboding — there is something the viewer can’t know. This feeling is only reinforced by the blurred left side of the face and the stark black background. However, the gold dot above the figure brings a promise of enlightenment. Somehow, I’m reminded of René Magritte’s “The Treachery of Images” (which some of you may know better by the text on the piece “This is not a pipe”). We’re aware “Untitled” is hiding something, possibly lying to us, but we admire it anyway. That’s maybe why Henry’s art is so compelling — her youth is a façade, hiding a talent that can’t be defined by time.
Lily Tischner: Talk to me about the process regarding this piece; you told me last night that you didn’t intend for this piece to be a self portrait but it ended up being one. How did that happen? Did the face come first or the black background? And what’s up with the gold dot?
Erin Henry: Well, I used my own face as the reference, but I had no intention of it being a specific portrait of myself — or anyone. Yet, at the same time, almost every painting I make, whether it be figurative or not, I consider a self portrait in some sense. So to really answer this question, it could be a self-portrait, or it could not be. The most important thing to me was to keep it ambiguous and let the viewer bring their own vision to it.
The face came first, and the dark background soon followed as I try to paint over a whole composition simultaneously. The gold dot was a last minute accent I added just to further visually entice the viewer into the piece.
LT: Here’s a question that not a lot of people wonder, but probably should: what exactly is Mylar? Everyone knows Mylar balloons, but what is the Mylar that artists work on?
EH: It took me a while to figure this one out myself! I’ve only worked on Mylar a few times, because it is very different than paper, but I’ve enjoyed experimenting with it a lot. Mylar is essentially a very smooth sheet of thick, plastic-like film. It’s translucent, so it’s really interesting to layer with paintings and drawings.
LT: Why leave the piece untitled?
EH: I left this piece untitled purely because I didn’t think a title was necessary. I really only like to add titles to pieces when I want a certain mood or connotation added upon viewing, but I wanted to leave this one purely open to any different interpretations.
LT: You work on both paper and canvas: does one afford more freedom than the other? Which do you prefer between the two?
EH: Over the years, I think I’ve closed the gap more on how I tackle paper versus canvas. I prefer canvas because once you’re done, it is already ready to hang. If I’m using graphite, I tend to stick to paper, because I’ve found that medium doesn’t work too well with canvas. But otherwise, I paint with oils, watercolors, gouache on paper and canvas. They are both pretty interchangeable to me. I think, in general, artists seem to be more focused on an end result when approaching a canvas rather than paper, but I think it’s important to not be too attached to your work either way. It only gets in the way of your process. I’ve created some of my greatest works in my sketchbook, as well as some of my worst paintings on the nicest canvases, but that’s okay… You can always paint over them.
LT: You told me that you’ve been coming to the gallery since you were fifteen; can you tell me what it’s like to be represented by the gallery as an artist after knowing it growing up?
EH: Yes! I’ve been visiting dk Gallery since it first opened in 2008. It has always been a great space to immerse myself into art and has always seemed so magical to me ever since I was young. Being represented by dk Gallery now still feels so surreal! I remember dreaming about what it could be like to hang my art on their walls, and now it’s happening. There’s a great energy at dk, and I consider myself blessed to be with an amazing team there.
LT: Finally, when you look at this piece now, what does the face looking back at you say or make you feel? Have those feelings changed since creating the piece?
EH: I think a big aspect of my self portraits for me is that I get something different from them every time I view them. A truly timeless piece of art is one that can change along with humanity around it. Ambiguity is a really important characteristic I like to include in my work, so I usually don’t purposefully attach a specific meaning to a piece as I’m making it. I prefer to just let it speak for itself as it’s being created, and then let it communicate to each viewer however it will.
Next, in our new tradition, I asked Henry a sample of questions from the infamous Proust Questionnaire:
LT: What is your greatest fear?
EH: My greatest fear, besides spiders, would probably be living a completely normal, insignificant life. I really want to do things no one has ever done before, and I want to be sure to leave a legacy behind with my art. Thinking about not successfully working towards that and my dreams scares me most.
LT: Which living person do you most admire?
EH: An artist I greatly look up to is Laura Marling. She’s a folk singer/songwriter from the UK, and, to me, she creates some of the most stunning and inspiring music I’ve ever heard. I admire her greatly for her unique talent and spirit.
LT: On what occasion do you lie?
EH: I’d like to think I only lie when it benefits everyone involved. Other than that, I try to be as honest as I can with everything that I do. I think it is vital to be honest as an artist.
LT: Which living person do you most despise?
EH: I don’t think I really despise many people at all, but the man sitting in the Oval Office unfortunately makes a great contender.
LT: What is the quality you most like in a man?
EH: Honesty and communication. Past all the physical qualities, I think these two things are extremely important in order to have the healthiest relationship possible.
LT: Which talent would you most like to have?
EH: In another life, I would have loved to have been a ballerina. Dance has always looked so exquisite and fun to me. I did take ballet when I was 6, but quit as soon as they wanted me to exchange my black leotard for a pink one.
LT: If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
EH: How messy I am! I hate admitting it, but any attempt in making myself seem clean and orderly is a dirty lie. Most strike it up to me being an artist, but I really wish I could just naturally be more organized and less lazy when it comes to cleaning.
LT: If you were to die and come back as a person or thing, what would it be?
EH: Perhaps a great, big elephant ear plant, or an oak tree.
LT: What is your most treasured possession?
EH: This is really hard for someone who hoards and collects almost everything to answer but probably my notebooks that I write and sketch in. Pieces that I make in my private notebooks are the only pieces of art I make that aren’t for sale, so I enjoy creating in them purely for myself. It’s the one place I get to be private with my art.
LT: How would you like to die?
EH: I’ve actually thought about this recently (I watch way too many murder documentaries), and I think as long as I’ve lived a long, fulfilling life, and it’s not painful, I don’t care how I die. I just want to die happy, surrounded by people I love and doing what I love…up until the last minute.
For more information on Erin Henry and to view more of her work, visit her artist’s page at dk Gallery, Erin Henry.