Kathleen Henderson draws in oil stick, applying medium to paper with a degree of pressure that conveys more than mere tonal emphasis. Her line is dense, agitated, driven by dismay and biting, desperate humor. Henderson has been drawing her way through nearly 30 years of exasperation at this country’s political corruption, military operations, environmental degradation, and social unrest, creating a devastating register of human folly and wrongdoing. Recently on view at Track 16 in Los Angeles, her new work, nearly 40 drawings made during the fraught pandemic year of 2021, features an evolving cast of ruggedly outlined figures in compromising, complicit, or otherwise revealing scenarios, and is among her toughest and most incisive.
Henderson often references ancient myths or folk narratives to critique contemporary abuses of power; in a selection of drawings here, she reaches for the centuries-old French tale of Bluebeard. The original character, a wealthy man with notably unattractive facial hair, marries and murders a succession of women until the latest wife discovers his gruesome stash of bodies and manages to escape. In Henderson’s hands, Bluebeard is a toxic everyman, an egregious all-purpose exploiter. In Running for School Board, she tacks conspicuous, messy blue triangles onto the faces of three parading candidates, providing a public service announcement of sorts by visibly disclosing their ill intent, perhaps the sort of retrogressive, book-banning agenda strategically absent from the campaign materials of ultraconservatives. In another piece, Blowing Bluebeard, figures line up obsequiously to perform sexual favors on the dumb blue brute, rendered, like many populating Henderson’s troubled cosmos, as an upright, limbless blob, little more than a phallus granted mobility and agency.
Across her oeuvre, humans do appear in conventional bodies, but more often they assume a range of shapeless shapes: cartoonish ghosts, hooded torture victims, costumed mummers, lumpy descendants of Philip Guston’s Klansmen. Henderson’s fiercely insistent black and red line, augmented by smeary, sickly yellows, greens, and pinks, circumscribes beings who lack spines and usually ears, too, the very physical features that emblematize conscience and empathy. No matter the depersonalized disguises, true, naked selves emerge via setting, action, or expression. Typically, these ruthless, guileless souls are caught inflicting some kind of damage (on others, the planet, democracy), claiming unearned authority, or displaying outsize pride. Drilling down on domination and the self-satisfaction it breeds, in Cage, Henderson pictures two men in what could pass as a captivity infomercial: one models the barely-big-enough trap and the other grins in unconcealed delight. In Pinkie, a large-mitted lump of a guy with an imposing weapon strapped across his chest preens before a mirror. And in the viscerally disturbing Yellow Light, Henderson bathes an incongruously smiling figure, rope-bound to a chair, in a cone of glowing gold.
Actual beasts are sprinkled throughout Henderson’s scenes, but only the humans appear beastly, and their cruelty is utterly banal. On the spectrum of social commentary, Henderson lands somewhere between Aesop and op-ed. She oscillates between ancient sources and contemporary manifestations, generalizing jabs and event-specific takes on vanity and the sorrier aspects of human nature. Among her closest compatriots are José-Guadalupe Posada and James Ensor.
Henderson’s work hinges on her fascination with how we see and present ourselves. She places figures before mirrors and crouching over puddles and pools, hungry for the validation of their own reflection. She satirizes, albeit bleakly, how the human instinct to preserve and witness has morphed in the era of mass communication and malignant individualism into a compulsion to document and broadcast our every move. Cameras and microphones abound in these scenes; nearly every activity has become either a performance or a press event. Boom carries this phenomenon to its darkest extreme, depicting the filming of a staged suicide. The victim, gun in mouth; the camera operator; and the holder of the boom mic stand on a curved stage, a globe the color of diluted blood. This is us, Henderson rages, producing and starring in a kind of collective snuff film, an arousing, real-time record of our own demise.
Her shaggy, urgent line is matched by rudimentary forms in a group of tabletop sculptures made in wax the color of dried meat (all 2022). Provisionally patched and pressed together, the figures, less than a foot high, have protruding noses, gaping mouths, buggy eyes, and arms akimbo. They look like escapees from a disturbing fairy tale. However exaggerated and distorted, Henderson’s works reveal the way things are as a means of exerting pressure to make them different. She once wrote across a drawing of an awkward fowl, “What if I could draw a bird / that could change the world? / in a good way, I mean / in a good way. / I know this is not that bird. / I know that.” Her wish declared, and its unattainability assumed, she has pressed on, making work that is increasingly, painfully relevant.