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Painting Without Paint: John Henderson and Contemporary Abstraction

Installation view of "A Revision" at Galerie Perrotin.  Courtesy Galerie Perrotin, Photograph by Guillaume Ziccarelli.

Installation view of “A Revision” at Galerie Perrotin.


For a painter, John Henderson’s newest exhibition features surprisingly few “paintings” in the traditional sense. There are several works in copper, so textural they become three-dimensional, a video, and “digital paintings” of dye on polyester–but hardly any oil, acrylic or canvas to be found.

Instead, Henderson makes abstract paintings that are thoroughly contemporary, blurring the lines between mediums while revealing how inconsequential those delineations are to begin with. Located at Galerie Perrotin’s New York location on Madison Avenue, Henderson took ARTnews on a tour of his current exhibition, “A Revision.”

The opening room contains several of Henderson’s large “Proof (wall rip, verso)” series. From 2014, the works were constructed by sticking linen onto Henderson’s studio wall with sizing, a traditional material used to prep canvases for paint. Henderson then rips the linen from the wall, taking a layer of wall paint along with it. Digitally magnified and transferred in sublimated dye onto polyester, the resulting works recall trompe l’oeil, deceiving the eye and inviting further inspection.

John Henderson, Proof (wall rip, verso), 2014, copper electrotype.

John Henderson, Proof (wall rip, verso), 2014, dye sublimation on polyester.


“In a way, these could be considered as almost a digital era fresco or wall painting,” Henderson said. “There is an illusion of depth and texture, but up close their surfaces are absolutely flat. The works can change a lot depending on the viewer’s proximity.”

While Henderson cites Abstract Expressionism as an obvious “touchstone” for his work, none of the braggadocio or masculine posturing rampant to that tradition is found here. Instead, Henderson depersonalizes his works through several means to provide viewers with a distance, with the space to interpret.

One of the ways Henderson accomplishes this is by inserting chance into his practice. “There’s a level of chance involved that I’ve chosen to embrace” Henderson said, gesturing to several in his “Proof” series. “I don’t know what’s going to come up with the paint. In some instances, residual brushwork, from whoever was in the studio before me, must have seeped into the walls, and it was revealed only once I peeled the linen off the wall.”

Juxtaposed against these works is another 2014 series, “Type.” Cast metal paintings, they are based off of abstract, heavily gestural pieces Henderson made in his studio with a distinctly “impasto expression.” They then undergo a process called “electrotyping,” in which copper ions are deposited through an electrolytic bath into a conductive mold taken of the original painting. It’s all very scientific, but, as Henderson puts it, “I am not interested in being directly involved in the labor of the reproduction. I send them out, and about a month later I receive a copper version of the painting.”

John Henderson, Type, 2014, copper electrotype. COURTESY THE ARTIST AND GALERIE PERROTIN

John Henderson, Type, 2014, copper electrotype.


He then disposes of the original paintings, refusing even now to reveal what colors they were before being translated into copper. The resulting works are glossy and tactile, recalling relief sculptures more than painting, with unpredictable coloring. The process is again one that “involves a loss of information,” transforming a painting into something that cannot be so easily defined.

At every turn, Henderson seemingly avoids re-aestheticizing his art objects; “Of course, I could have taken away the silver, or made them more or less polished, but perhaps that would have muddied the process. With the electrotypes, I decided I didn’t want to ‘rouge up the corpse’, you could say.”

Even the one “traditional” painting that Henderson includes in the exhibition–a shimmering blue, oil-on-canvas from 2014–is devoid of painterly brushstrokes or any trace of the artist’s hand. Henderson constructed the painting over a long period of time, applying layer after layer of paint while simultaneously removing any texture of the paint with rollers and trowels. Recalling a squeegeed Richter abstraction, the final work could be another painting printed onto canvas: flat on the surface, but a suggestion of depth within–“muted and recessed” as Henderson says.

Perhaps most inventively, Henderson finds a way to connect painting and video, including a 2014 “Untitled” digital video in the exhibition. The 25 minute video films a skylight in the artist’s studio during a rain storm. Framing the window in a painterly rectangle, the seemingly mundane video subtly shifts into a sublime metaphor for Henderson’s artistic practice and painting at large. The window, with its rectangular grids and horizontal bars, becomes the back of a glass canvas; the raindrops sprinkling on top are the glancing brushstrokes of some holy hand.

Installation view including Henderson's Unititled, a 2014 digital video. COURTESY GALERIE PERROTIN, PHOTOGRAPH GUILLAUME ZICCARELLI

Installation view including Henderson’s Unititled, a 2014 digital video.


Henderson connects painting to performance, stating that he “perform(s) within the structure of painting” and “the role of the painter.” In this sense, Henderson’s works can be seen as a documentation of his gestures, an artifact of his intention.

“If I’m performing the act of painting,” he said, “then perhaps this video is a kind of documentation of my stage.”

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