Mary Henderson

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Farmer's Market, 2014

oil on panel, 30" x 40"

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My work has always been inspired by my own personal and family experiences, as well as by broader historical and social phenomena. In drawing upon networking and community photo-sharing websites for source material, I have become fascinated by the ways that these forums allow for the co-mingling of the personal and the historical, documenting a moment when the distinction between public and private experience has become increasingly blurred. The drawings and paintings consider the ways in which the accidental information captured by such images can take on an iconic quality, becoming in retrospect emblematic of a larger personal or cultural experience. As with all snapshots, the initial significance of the source images lies in who or what they capture, rather than in their artistic merits as photographs.

In translating an image from snapshot to painting, however, I can explore the ways that visual content is changed when it is moved from the medium of casual photography - a form associated with impermanence and reduced aesthetic demands - to the realm of figurative art, which bears the burden of aspirations to permanence and high aesthetics. Through the long and contemplative process of painting – and by compositing, refocusing, drawing from multiple sources – I try to transform the source material from a fleeting record of individual experience into something more complicated and broadly resonant. The result is a painting that has the appearance of a faithful rendering, but which deviates substantially from its source.

I work in paint rather than another medium – using a time-consuming, tightly-resolved style – as a response to the ephemeral nature of our contemporary visual culture. The democratization of digital photography has made producing an image easy and nearly costless, creating a flood of visual documentation in which individual moments are quickly lost or forgotten. Representational painting, by its nature, stills and preserves, prioritizing singular images and drawing attention to what may have originally been casual or peripheral visual information. All painters are participants in a millenia-long tradition of personal visual response to the surrounding world. Because I believe that tradition is important, I strive to make work that is historically aware and pays homage to its precedents while still engaging with contemporary concerns.


My latest series, “Sunday Paintings,” continues to examine class-specific cultural phenomena. These new, highly autobiographical paintings turn to the leisure activities of my fellow gentrifiers — educated, middle-class professionals who have created seemingly idyllic lives of contentment and privilege in large cities. The images are set within the modern urban utopia of parks, brunch spots and farmer’s markets that are the hallmarks of contemporary gentrification. Continuing to explore the contradictory qualities of modern leisure, the work depicts the pleasures of these environments, while also seeking out unguarded moments of reflection, preoccupation or disengagement.

The series is, in some respects, a reference to a long tradition of urban and domestic genre painting, heavily indebted to the work of painters like Edward Hopper and Gustave Caillebotte. One difference, of course, is that, in a culture transformed by camera phones and social media, the subjects of my paintings are experienced self-reporters. Indeed, part of what intrigues me about the people whose lives are explored in these paintings – other than the fact that I am one of them – is the element of curation that underlies their activities, which are so frequently documented with images (of meals cooked, of places seen, of races run) that convey idealized selves to the world.

What also draws me to these images, and what I hope to convey with my work, is the extent to which they are not simply displays of self-satisfaction. Within these images exist undercurrents of self-doubt, anomie and status anxiety, all of which rest uneasily alongside the satisfaction the images project. It is these contradictions that I try to explore in the work.

Artworks by Mary Henderson

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