Judith Henry

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Artist’s Statement

For almost 50 years I have created conceptual multimedia artworks exploring the friction between our interior lives and public selves. I have secretly observed, listened to, photographed, filmed and recorded strangers in public places while remaining largely invisible. When using myself as subject, I have appeared masked or hidden, as in several recent series.

After graduating Carnegie Mellon, I moved to New York from the suburbs of Cleveland and found myself in a densely populated metropolis. For me, each person was a matchless original as well as a stereotype. In 1970, with a small, cheap camera, I began surreptitiously photographing people on the streets, often listening to their conversations. In an attempt to tease out patterns of human experience, I aggregated thousands of photographs.

For years, I repurposed my street photographs in many forms: books, videos, photographs, installations and sculptures, and even created Who I Saw in New York from 1970-2000, a book and gallery installation consisting of photographs of thousands of people.

When I moved from SoHo to Williamsburg, Brooklyn in 2008, I became dependent on the L train to visit Manhattan. This made it easy to go to galleries, museums, visit friends, see doctors, etc. I now found myself in close quarters with a vast and, for me, new, population. As a pastime, I began photographing other passengers with my iPhone. At the same time, I continued my art in the studio by developing several series of myself behind masks.

In 2017, it was announced that the L train would be closed for 18 months for repairs. What would this mean? How would my life be affected? Would my work practice change? It would not, but the focus, the idea would have a different urgency. I decided to start a new project, painting portraits of the passengers I had photographed. With free, quick, gestural strokes and a palette of both muted and intense colors, I tried to bring life to the gray underground. The speed of my painting reflected, for me, the crowded, ever-moving population of passengers; hurried, contemplative, sometimes angry, occasionally musical and lyrical. Almost half a million of us would be dislocated or stranded every day.

Underground became integrated with above ground. Everywhere I walked, construction crossed my paths. I photographed my altered landscape. The images became backgrounds on which I mounted several of the portraits. This recombination created context which has always been crucial to my art practice. I called the series L Train Bye, Bye. But then, overnight, everything seemed about to change. The governor had somehow discovered a new technology at the last minute. No shutdown, he said. No fast track. But my work would stand with a new title, They Rode the L Train.

Judith Henry is a multi-media artist, born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio. After receiving a BFA from Carnegie-Mellon University, she moved to New York in the late 1960s and started making art that explored the friction between interior life and public persona, developing themes of self-disclosure, identity and loss. She utilizes drawing, photography, typography, video, painting and sculpture. Several of her works resulted in large installations. In addition to exhibiting internationally for decades, in 1976 Henry and artist Jaime Davidovich created Wooster Enterprises, whose conceptual paper products were sold internationally. Her conceptual Crumpled Paper Stationery was produced and sold by The Museum of Modern Art for years. MoMA also commissioned her to produce Overheard on the Way to MoMAQNS when they closed the 53rd Street museum for renovation and temporarily moved to Queens. Judith Henry’s Overheard book series was published by Universe/Rizzoli from 2000 to 2002 and in 2006 Atria Books published her Overheard in America. Henry has shown in New York, Los Angeles, Miami, Cleveland, Philadelphia and internationally in Barcelona, Buenos Aires, Istanbul, London and Switzerland. Her most recent solo shows were at BravinLee programs, New York, 2015 and 2018, Visual Arts Center of New Jersey, 2016 and The National Arts Club 2017.

Editors’ Notes (Posit 20)

 
Welcome to the 20th issue of Posit! We’re truly delighted (if a bit amazed) to find ourselves here. And we’re deeply grateful to all of you (worldwide!) who read and view this site — and, especially, to our ever-growing family of contributors, for entrusting their remarkable work to us.

And speaking of remarkable work, the poetry and prose gathered here is, as always, as various as it is impossible to categorize. Nonetheless, as befits the somber chill of mid-winter, much, if not most, of this work grapples with the most ancient of literary preoccupations: mortality. Which is to say, “this absenting / presence, this existence” (Michael Tod Edgerton, Land’s End) — its tragedy, its absurdity, its beauty, and its generative relationship with life and art. The range of approaches in evidence underscores the inexhaustible depth of this subject, as a look at the work of Edgerton, Tyler Flynn Dorholt, Robert Hamilton, Margaret Hanshaw, Simone Muench & Jackie K. White, Rick Snyder, and Anne Riesenberg confirms.

Given this subject matter, it’s not surprising that an elegiac tone weaves through this issue — made emphatic by moments of actual elegy, for Philip Seymour Hoffman (Dorholt), Anthony Bourdain (in the visual art of Miriam Hitchcock), Catullus’ famous sparrow (Snyder) — even Damien Hirst’s decaying shark (Edgerton).

Yet in many of these works, the link between loss and creation gives rise to an understated but persistent optimism — a “calm exhilaration” (Edgerton) which leads us to “savor . . . the Value of imperfect choices” and appreciate the “grace of saying Yes.” (Riesenberg). This is true even — or perhaps, especially — in certain works notable for their silence. Miraculously, it is sometimes in the spaces between what is said (as well as the spare beauty of their language), that the most potent generative potential is located. We’re thinking here, especially, of the poems of Julie Phillips Brown and Alexandra Mattraw, but also, cousin to those ellipses, the ones made visual and tactile by Sonja Johanson’s botanical erasures, the lacunae of which give rise to new structures, even as they mark the destruction they highlight. Plus, cousin to both, Kelly Nelson’s novel translations, which combine departure and tribute to give rise to the shockingly, refreshingly new.

This is not to say that all here is gentle or calm, as a glance at the poems of Robert Hamilton, Muench & White, or Rick Snyder will confirm. Nor that only loss is generative, as Kathleen Hellen’s high octane recombination of language, “sprouting wordsinsideofworlds,” reveals.

But all of the work here offers something new, in the best sense of that over- and abused word. And we are the better for receiving it.

In this excerpt from The Adjacent Possible, Julie Phillips Brown’s “one” evokes the music of solitude. Although the “one” of the poem is so “unaccountable . . . countless, fathomless, and alone” that “words form as burrs and pits,” the haunting beauty of Brown’s own prosody “flowers among the watery veils” to proffer a “cloudself” so transcendent it “wakes as air.“

Tyler Flynn Dorholt’s elegiac litanies of urban living “put on a charge of hope” even as they “gestur[e] toward demise” in their deftly inclusive contemplation of the entanglement of self and other, survival and suffering. Focusing on Jane Street in New York City to “talk. . . about life,” Stoop connects the death of an anonymous pedestrian with Philip Seymour Hoffman’s overdose while “widening / the blood to rise above character,” as well as a singer downing a burger “where Dylan sang / about Emmett Till,” insuring that “when [we] look / at what [we’ve] seen / the scene is [not] . . . overlooked.”

Like Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn, Michael Tod Edgerton’s It Closing In It Whispers considers the inextricable bond between death and beauty, provoked, here, not by an urn, but by the “tender,” “erotic,” and “brutal” portraits of Francis Bacon, as well as Damien Hirst’s famous shark “scraping against the glazed skin of the seen” in The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living. Both poems featured here embody what they respond to: art’s capacity “to call out to call into / being,” compelling us to marvel at how “surprisingly / beautiful [it is] . . . / to be stricken to be / taken,” despite the disturbingly fleeting nature of “anything kin, / in the 21st century, / to transcendance.”

In Senso Unico, Predator & Prey, and Labor Theory of Value, Robert Hamilton sings in a number of forms and tones unified by a voice as erudite as it is forceful in its exploration of the tragic irony of the human condition. These poems expose a species prone to grandiosity, even as it — as we — are trapped by the ‘unique meaning’ of the one-way, no-exit (“senso unico”) trajectory that characterizes a mortality in which “the Ding an Sich cannot be had” and we are not “roaming the wild but caught in a little snow globe with our own figurines hunting a brown little smudge of a beast.”

The stark beauty of Margaret Hanshaw’s imagery confronts us with an existential solitude from which “there are no distinct patterns. / No lessons to be drawn.” What’s more, this “thrashing dystopia” is universal rather than personal, since “strangers occupy the same deep space.” Nonetheless, these poems remind us, there is comfort in the real: “slow light. / A purple ease,” one’s hands like “little balconies” in “the autumn sun.” But most importantly, there is the deep resource of the self, one’s “only house:” “a single mountain” capable of “diving / miles within itself.”

In Kathleen Hellen’s poems, what we do to survive “the tillandtamp of every penny nickeled, every dime a habit” may be the addiction of the lotuseaters, “a made-for-hope numbness as the tactic you have mastered as the happy ending.” Unless, they suggest, “the only way out” is “to be a trickster . . . a fairy in the dome sponging off the glut surviving in the storm and drought.” Either way, the compressed intensity of Hellen’s neologisms are as provocative as they are pleasurable to read.

Sonja Johanson’s botanical erasures inventively combine text with both native and invasive plant parts to spark a dialogue on a number of simultaneous levels. In Divinity, for instance, she uses leaves, Pincushion moss, and a passage from Taltos by Anne Rice to comment upon “this brimming world” of both the poem and this planet in danger of being erased by our own species’ invasive tendencies.

The chiseled mystery of Alexandra Mattraw’s poetry resonates “like a ghost echoing.” Reading these poems confers a pleasure akin to “taking some of the sea into your mouth.” In one of the two poems entitled /Vigil/, a decontextualized “I” “fells speech to splinters.” In the other, it “split[s] infinitives to / engolden dirt and breath” to achieve that great goal of the best art: “holding in / the swarm of things.”

Simone Muench and Jackie K. White mine the sonnet’s dialogic and philosophical affinity to offer marvels of precise, profound, and synthesized resolution. These poems consider, variously, the insecurity of female identity via “the dress [as] a liar laced with history’s lies,” “the desert [as] an armory of black tires . . . murder ballads, and . . . silence strung along barbwire,” and the “garden’s rot, obit, subplot.” All serve as metaphors for the darkness we must lead ourselves out of, if we are to reach “salve or salvage . . . Not quite song / or sugar water, but a wrought ripe, sunlit.”

Kelly Nelson’s erasure-palimpsest-translations reveal the complex delights of the bonds she forges — and detects — between languages. Their insightful and sometimes humorous effects derive at least in part from the juxtaposition of multiple poetic impulses, starting with classic American texts, and ending with Nelson’s doubly-translated erasures. The results are entirely fresh and undeniably her own. In The Day Lady Died, “I spun no feathers around your neck” derives from the verb hilar (to spin). In The Road Not Taken, “I pray to see the possum before it sees me” is the road wished not taken — glad as we are that the twisty paths of these poems were.

Anne Riesenberg’s extraordinary tales “skew ordinary Neediness into a Darker Story” via prose as clear-eyed and unflinching as it is dreamlike, and sometimes surrealistic. Always, though, “Resolution tremble[s] Above . . . its own finely Wrought cloud.” Informed by wisdom, complexity, and compassion, Riesenberg’s resolutions bring us to “savor . . . the Value of imperfect Choices” and “the grace of saying Yes within the context of Love.”

In O Miselle Passer! and Red Tide, Rick Snyder reframes the preoccupations of “high” Western poetic and philosophical thought within the most banal public spaces of contemporary life: waiting rooms. Here, Catullus’ famous sparrow is trapped in an airport “aisle / of plastic blue seats,” while the “bounded lack of boundaries” of extra-linear space is suggested by a fish tank flanked by a plastic plant. These poems expose the inherent comedy of the mundane, even as they prevent us from assuming we can deduce substance from style; their incongruous waiting room fauna raise questions as eternal as any more obviously “poetic” predecessor.

Thank you, as ever, for reading!

Susan Lewis, Carol Ciavonne, and Bernd Sauermann

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The intricate constructions of Eozen Agopian incorporate many materials and techniques. Her complex pieces are like small universes, each containing its own private visual logic. Using techniques drawn from sewing and weaving, she uses threads and fabric to push and pull her works into three dimensions from their wall-based origins. Manipulating loose threads over painted and drawn color, she is able to create compositions that seem to vibrate as the color and form are in constant movement. They are intense and beautiful, the eye moving constantly over these landscapes of color and texture.

Judith Henry has created a body of work that will resonate with all those who commute on public transportation. The L Train, a heavily used subway line that runs through Manhattan and into Brooklyn, is a perfect device to use to paint an iconic portrait of urban life. Everyone takes the L train! Using an intimate format (5 x 5 inches) Henry has portrayed her fellow commuters with humor and empathy. Her loose and fluid painting style, superimposed over black and white photographs of the subway, conveys the beat of urban life.

We are presenting a snippet from extraordinary 12-year project, entitled My Brother’s War by Jessica Hines. Hines has sought understanding and closure on her brother’s experience as a soldier in Vietnam. Through photographs and text, both his and hers, she eloquently paints a portrait of both her beloved brother and his experience as a soldier and her family’s loss. It is work that is deeply personal and yet touches us all with its willingness to express love and grief.

Miriam Hitchcock makes mysterious paintings that hint at narrative, but leave the story up to the viewer. Her works on shaped panels capture brief moments of everyday life – a window, a profile, the gesture of a dog walking. Like visual poems, they reveal bits and pieces of color, form and idea which are effortlessly woven into lyrical compositions. We see the connections between her thoughts and observations of the physical world synthesized into images that reflect her contemplative worldview. In these paintings, I perceive the landscape and sunlight of the California coastline, where Hitchcock lives. Clear warm color, with a hint of clouds and sun, infuse her work.

The ceramic and mixed media work of Beth Lo conveys her keen understanding of both her family’s cultural heritage and her experience growing up as a minority in the US. Her wonderful images of children and childhood emerged in her work after the birth of her son and reach back into her own childhood as a potent source of psychological material. The gentle narratives of her finely detailed painting beautifully marry the traditions of ceramic pottery and sculpture with the modernity of her storytelling.

The carved wooden sculptures made by Hirosake Yabe are simultaneously funny, tender and bold. He takes the simplest of forms and gestures and imbues them all with a deep sense of life and humanity. His animals are particularly “human,” suggesting a universal connection between all living beings. His carving is masterful and bold, the marks of the object-making adding to the animation of his figures.

Enjoy!

Melissa Stern