More Than Meets the Eye: The History and Mystery Within Adele Henderson's Art

Drawings of eighteenth and nineteenthcentury medical procedures quickly capture the attention in Adele Henderson's Lazaretto No. 6.  A number of these appropriated images involve eye surgery (perhaps an analogy for the artist's search for an inner vision); others show operations on the brain (possibly a corollary for the artist's wish to tap the unconscious). All of these medical illustrations suggest that just as the doctor probes the hidden layers of the body with surgical instruments, so does the artist with her tools reveal insights and inner truths.

Since the early 1990's, Adele Henderson has explored and probed her personal vision in a series of increasingly complex works of art on paper. The densely layered tapestry of images found in Lazaretto No. 6 from 1994 encompasses many of the thematic concerns and artistic devices she has considered. The artist has long been fascinated by the working of the body, the role of science in exploring and explaining its intricacies, and "the dichotomy between our inner knowledge of the body and our scientific knowledge of it.

In Lazaretto No. 6 the scientific authority of these early illustrations is subverted by her humorous, but unsettling pen-and-ink smilingface figure. The gesso layer on which the figure is drawn partly obscures the medical images, but more veiled still are underlying layers of images printed from linoleum blocks and lithographic plates prepared with both drawn and xerox-transfer images. Barely discernible in a raking light, this collection of strange biomorphic shapes, mysterious objects, and flat amorphous forms first appeared in another series of work, Abiogenisis.

The complexity of Henderson's imagery and the variety of media she has explored continues to grow. The biomorphic forms of her 1991 monotypes seem like straightforward, though strange, denizens of a believable, alternate world. The subsequent lithographs layer increasingly dense combinations of mysterious mechanical and invented organic forms, some sketchily drawn and transparent, others carefully modeled and sculptural, which emerge out of a richly worked background. While most of her prints are lithographs, she occasionally incorporates linocut as well, and during 1993 (in part spurred on by a lack of color lithography facilities during a fellowship at Yaddo), she began to work over the prints with drawing ink, oil paint, litho ink, and acrylic.

Over the past five years Henderson has assembled in loose leaf notebooks thousands of images which she describes as existing "on the fringe of my consciousness. " It is partially from this fascinating visual dictionary that she has developed a repertoire of invented and appropriated images that appear and reappear in her works on paper. For Henderson, coming to terms with this pictorial universe, always in flux, is analogous to the daily challenge of human existence, to make sense of life and of the world. For her, art and life do not lend themselves to simple interpretations. The pieces in her visual puzzles, which exist somewhere between the familiar and foreign, the benign and overtly threatening, do not add up to a clear, tidy picture, or a straightfoerward, linear story. Henderson even chose obscure titles for her various series Abiogenesis, Ontogeny, Phylon, Heteronomous, Lazaretto because she knew they would not be familiar terms. Generally they refer to the growth of living organisms; Lazaretto, to a hospital for the diseased.

Recently Henderson has introduced the human figure to her work, as in the series of toner drawings Lazaretto Nos. 7 through 14, where human medical curiosities appear to inhabit the landscapes of their subconscious minds. In this series, she creates haunting compositions by meticulously hand manipulating an electrostatic image before the toner is set by heat, building up and altering the composition through successive runs through the copier. Through this process, the figure is fused with its strange and mysterious environment into a seamless, convincing, and highly surreal world.

For Henderson, the layering of images in a drawing or painting offers a direct analogy to the construction of her prints. For both, she has developed a rich and resonant vocabulary through which she can compose with an intuitive spontaneity, the layers bearing ever-changing, always surprising combinations of and connections between images. Like a kind of a latter day "exquisite corps," or an intensely real, but unsettling dream, these creations stir simultaneous feelings of recognition and foreignness, comfort and unease. That the visible history of this creative process should be an important part of her work is integral to her art and to her vision.


Roberta Waddell Curator of Prints, New York Public Library
May 26, 1995

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