Allowing for Accretion: The Art of Adele Henderson

Surprisingly perhaps, the standard definition of the word "accretion" is narrowly biological: Webster's New Collegiate gives us "growth; specifically organic growth," and "increase by external addition," and most poignantly, "a growing together of parts that are naturally separate." But "accretion" is regularly found in a multitude of other settings: in geology it describes the languid processes through which minerals and other substances grow from discrete components into rock. More metaphorically, it is used to speak of the ways in which elements of culture - historical events, figures, objects - become indissolubly attached to the emotional and social residue of subsequent years and usage.

All these forms of accretion, from the metamorphic to the metaphoric, are called to mind in the art of Adele Henderson. The mysterious forms she favors - the doughy sacs, resilient tubes, bulbous yet hollow ductworks - strongly suggest biological functions, if not recognizable organs. Henderson complements their handsome muckiness with snippets of old scientific engravings, placing poetic irregularity against exacting webs of descriptive line that represent even the softest and most squamous surface with chiseled precision. The contrast is more than just a question of visual style: the twins-in-utero that appear in Ontogeny No. 4 or the exposed brain in Lazaretto No. I are familiar visual moments from the history of science. They call up an era of cognitive confidence, of early encyclopedists laboring happily in the faith that an accumulation of precise observation would result, not in the mind-bending barrage of our own "informational age," but in a world of precision and comprehension. Strengthening the point, Henderson persistently pairs the organic with the mechanistic -the twins are accompanied by officious-looking laboratory equipment; the brain by some form of universal joint. Even the intestinal tube of Phylon bears a strong resemblance to corroded automobile parts.

All of these images - the invented and the borrowed, the organic and the mechanical -are brought together in field of sulphurous or ashen pigment, and held in place not by narrative or architectonic cleverness, but by the strategic structural planes that are typically a property of the print. While almost all art is created in stages, in printmaking processes the stages tend to be both more disconnected and more visibly concrete: in etching or lithography, an image is drawn on a plate or stone, then processed with chemicals, then printed to paper (where it will appear reversed, left-to-right). The critic Robert Hughes compared the process to "learning to play Ping-Pong backwards in amirror with a time lapse," 1 and its lack of immediacy and coherence has often proved a tumbling block to many painters who wish to make prints.  At the same time, however, some artists have discovered in the very indirectness of printmaking, and in its not-entirely-successful illusion of pictorial unity, both a compositional tool and an evocative metaphor - a material and figurative manifestation of accretion.

Henderson's Abiogenisis No. 8 pictures two strata of lumpy objects (mummified organs? ancient artifacts? eccentric amphora?) arrayed like some unlabeled collection on the stacked, glass-bottomed drawers of an ancient curio cabinet. The defiant flatness of the arrangement, the simplified color scheme, and the way in which the objects are abruptly cut off by the margins, give the work a strangely ornamental, pattern-like look, as of some otherworldly curtain fabric.

Abiogenisis No. 8 is a lithograph, but these same structural characteristics, and this same quality of decorative devolution, are present in all of Henderson's work. Ontogeny No. 5 combines printing, painting and drawing in a similarly stratified manner.  The bottom layers of images were applied with printing rollers, which were in turn printed with a scattering of small, purloined bits of botany or anatomy -fungi or cochlea - that are, like the drapery of pigment beneath them, monochromatic and essentially flat; schematic linear representations that we can interpret as dimensional objects, but which provide no illusion ofdepth or substance. Not so the triumphantly illusionary, bright orange life saver at center. A small pocket of three-dimensional illusion in a defiantly two-dimensional world, it doesn't merge with its surroundings, but sits atop them like the cherry on the sundae.

In Henderson's recent wax works, such as Medico, layering is given more robustly substantial form: one set of images is painted on wax applied to a glass sheet which overlays another set of images, made by hand manipulation of photocopies. Rather than patterns on overlapping transparent veils, these resemble generations of flies in amber.

The thing that is obvious from these works is that Henderson's style is not a result of printmaking's limitations, but rather that her choice of media reflects an astute alignment of the nature of print processes and the nature of her thought. It is interesting to note that for the last five years, Henderson has kept ongoing sets of loose-leaf notebooks where she catalogs found and invented images. Unlike the traditional, fixed, artist's sketchbook, hers is a system that allows for endless rearrangement and juxtaposition Without affecting the integrity of any individual image. In a similar way, Henderson commonly re-uses copies of her earlier prints as a starting ground for new works. For Henderson, as for many independent printmakers who have little access to massive commercial distribution networks, this is the true advantage of what the print historian William Ivins called "the exactly repeatable pictorial statement." Using the refuse of earlier projects, new ideas can be grafted directly onto old forms. And this is perhaps the heart of Henderson's art: the ineluctable contact between old information and new invention, the quixotic attachment between what we collect and what we create - the "growing together of parts that are naturally separate.


Susan Tallman
June 4, 1995

1 Robert Hughes, Frank Stella: The Swan Engravings, Fort Worth: The Fort Worth Art Museum, 1984, p. 6.


From the catalog for the exhibition Adele Henderson: ACCRETIONS, Castellani Art Museum of Niagara University 17 September to 12 November, 1995.