Tamara Henderson

Seasons End: Painting Healer
Rodeo Gallery, London
17 May – 29 July 2017

Two flights of stairs up from the flux of Charing Cross Road, Tamara Henderson’s installation at Rodeo Gallery in London, Seasons End: Painting Healer, is like a crowded but frozen market place. Packed into the gallery, the sculptures have a distinctively human form, with outstretched arms, large blocky feet and a variety of objects for heads, ranging from small glass spheres, disks covered with metallic orange glitter, loose copper coils and tufts of hay. The sculptures are made from simple wooden crossbars and are clothed with handmade garments. Rectangular in shape, each textile piece has been individually decorated with symbolic motifs. Repeated across a number of the works, are large closed eyes sewn onto a black background in iridescent fabric. Their oversized lashes dangle down like long silvery hair or torrentuous tears. Taking us back to the 1970s or ’80s with its mix of metallic fabrics, blocky shapes, flowers and occult symbolism, the installation has a melancholy and nostalgic feel, heightened by the soft electronic music that pervades the space and the work’s outmoded craft-like production techniques. By using sewing to make these works, Henderson nods towards feminist art practices and the sexual division of labour. The exhibition draws on both psychic and geographic experiences. Henderson collects objects from a range of sources during her travels to create her sculptures, such as textile markets and curiosity shops. Since 2011 she has used hypnosis as a way of tapping into unconscious thought processes, in order to generate ideas for her work. She also uses the Surrealist technique of free association and has employed spiritual practitioners, such as aura readers, to assist her in accessing the depths of her imagination.

Sheer squares filled with potpourri adorn the cloak of one scarecrow-like figure, giving the installation an additional sensuous dimension, that of smell. Jutting out from an over-sized pocket, made from pale denim, on another, is an aged piece of paper that reads ‘TIMELESS’ in capital letters, directing our attention to the themes of time, memory and decay that permeate the work. Almost every surface of the gallery space is covered. Large watery abstract paintings adorn the walls with soft nebulous shapes, and sheer fabric works hang across the windows like ornate curtains. Quilted and strung together with ribbon, the almond shape of the eyes is repeated and hangs in front of them. Some of the works refer to Henderson’s friends and family.

My mother in ashes (2016), depicts a sad harlequin face trapped inside a large grey metallic urn, sewn onto one of the first soft sculpture totems you encounter as you enter the room. Suspended above the urn to the left are plump purple fabric grapes stuffed with wadding. Henderson often references psychoanalysis in her work. For Freud, consciousness was full of ‘gaps’. It did not operate like an exhaustive representation of what we know and experience. He distinguished between psychic material that is merely latent and that which has been made unconscious through an act of repression, focussing on issues of sexuality and desire. Memory, past experience, childhood and association are all important in the exhibition. Energy was at the centre of Freud’s concept of the unconscious and this is something that Henderson’s work exudes with its post-minimalist, overloaded aesthetic. Her work, like Freud’s, is concerned with the past. Hers transports us not only to childhood experience, but to another age. One filled with rags, lost trinkets, mysticism and nature worship.

The nostalgic impulse and concern with the past within a strand of contemporary art has been spurned by some critics and art historians who believe that the tendency to excavate lost pasts is a symptom of escapism and suggests an inability to address the present and imagine the future.1 Nostalgia is often seen in opposition to modern philosophies of history that see time as part of a narrative of progress and emancipation. In contrast, Paolo Magagnoli in his article ‘Critical Nostalgia in the Art of Joachim Koester’ suggests that in order to evaluate whether nostalgia is critical or reactionary, we need to unpick the individual works themselves.2 Henderson’s work does appear to have critical aspects, such as her desire to disrupt rationality in a manner that is similar to the Dadaist’s focus on the absurd and nonsensical. The work de-familiarises the present: its imaginative leaps take us far away from the mundane and routine and show us that other worlds are possible. Thinkers, such as Ernst Bloch conceived of the present as the outcome of contradictory temporalities. For Bloch, multiple temporalities could exist together in modernity, which he saw as a convoluted process. Residues and traditions from the past were present within modernity as both regressive forces and an anticipation of a better future. Henderson’s work speaks to this idea of a world of multiple temporalities coinciding. Whether these archaic forces are progressive or regressive is open to interpretation.

Tamara Henderson, My mother in ashes, 2016. Wood, cotton, ribbon, copper, lace, potpourri, spandex, plaster, dimensions variable. Photograph Ruth Clark.

Installation view, Tamara Henderson, Seasons End: Panting Healer, Rodeo, London, 2017. Photograph Plastiques.

Tamara Henderson, My mother in ashes, 2016. Wood, cotton, ribbon, copper, lace, potpourri, spandex, plaster, dimensions variable. Photograph Ruth Clark.

Installation view, Tamara Henderson, Seasons End: Panting Healer, Rodeo, London, 2017. Photograph Plastiques.
 

notes: 

1. Dieter Roelstraete, ‘After the Historiographic Turn: Current Findings’, E-Flux 6, May 2009. See http://www.e-flux.com/journal/06/61402/after-the-historiographic-turn-cu...
2. Paolo Magagnoli, ‘Critical Nostalgia in the Art of Joachim Koester’, Oxford Art Journal, 34:1 2011, p.99.