Mary Henderson is a visual artist living and working in Philadelphia. She teaches painting part-time at St. Joseph’s University and Tyler School of Art; she is also a member and former co-director of the Philadelphia site of the nonprofit network of artist-run spaces, Tiger Strikes Asteroid. She received an AB in fine arts from Amherst College, and an MFA in painting from the University of Pennsylvania. Her most recent solo show, Being Together, opened in September, 2022 at Marcia Wood Gallery in Atlanta, GA. Her work has been shown throughout the country at venues including the Delaware Contemporary Museum (Wilmington, DE), the Westmoreland Museum of American Art (Greensburg, PA), the Muskegon Museum of Art (Muskegon, MI), Mesa Contemporary Arts Museum (Mesa, AZ), the Woodmere Museum (Philadelphia, PA), Lyons Wier Gallery (New York, NY) and Wilding Cran Gallery (Los Angeles, CA). She is a 2021-22 fellow with the Center for Emerging Artists (Philadelphia, PA), was a finalist for the 2019 Bennett Prize and has been awarded a Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Individual Artist Fellowship, a PCA SOS grant, and residencies at the Jentel Foundation and the Hambidge Center (where she was the Nena Griffith Distinguished Fellow). Her work has been featured or reviewed in Harper's Magazine, L’Espresso (Italy), New American Paintings, The Philadelphia Inquirer and Art in America, among other publications. Her recent curatorial projects include Sagas at Tiger Strikes Asteroid (Philadelphia, PA), Anachronism and Liberation at Tiger Strikes Asteroid (Philadelphia, PA) and LOCUM, at University City Arts League (Philadelphia, PA).
This body of work is the latest iteration of a multi-year project centered on impromptu portraits of people in public spaces, seen in unguarded instances of personal connection or synchronicity. The paintings are about the connections between people, and the ways we affect each other – knowingly and unknowingly, positively and negatively – when we gather together. Although I have always been uncomfortable in dense crowds, I am also moved by the ways they support, at one end, small moments of intimate connection between strangers and, at the other end, large-scale expressions of collective identity and solidarity.
My work is inspired by the traditions of urban genre painting and street photography that attempt to capture the spontaneous poetry of the everyday. I work mostly from photos I have taken of people in groups at large public events – protests, amusement parks, concerts – although I sometimes use found imagery that resonates with my personal experience. It is important to me not to approach any group entirely as an outsider, so I try to work within the boundaries of my own experience, using images from places I have been or would feel comfortable going to. I remove the majority of external context and identifying information in order to draw the viewer’s attention to expressions and gestures, rather than to social signifiers. My palette is saturated and largely invented, and is based on a combination of intuition and color theory to convey a mood or aura. Because I paint from very low-resolution reference photos, often focusing on a tiny corner of a large scene, my process is highly interpolative and draws extensively on the use of external source images and direct observation; the paintings are thus not as much reproductions as they are reconstructions.
I am notably bad at recognizing faces: I can’t place people I should be able to place, and an acquaintance’s sunglasses or new haircut can throw me into paralysis. I think I have had to build careful scrutiny into everyday experience as a kind of workaround, using the tools of representational painting and drawing – the sighting of angles, the comparison of proportions – to help make sense of the world. Each new interaction is an exercise in measuring and re-measuring, willing myself to recognition. This ritual of memorization, formalized as part of my studio practice, takes on an almost devotional quality: I feel a sense of obligation to my subjects that compels me to render them with a high level of fidelity, even when so much else in the painting is invented. Close scrutiny feels like a way to conjure a sense of intimacy and connection where no previous ties existed. In the context of limited group interaction and covered faces, the paintings have become a kind of meditation on absence – an ongoing expression of longing and affection for the surprising intimacy of the public square.