Photographed by Nico Lopez-Alegria
Interviewed by Louise Sandback
My name is Henry Adeson. I’m in CC, class of 2021. I’m majoring in Art History and potentially minoring in Literature. I’m a visual artist working largely in two-dimensional media like pencil, pastels and oil paint, but I’m always eager to find a new material or technology to draw with. I’m from London originally but was born to American expats. So I’m sort of “American-passing” as it were.
How does your upbringing in London influence your practice?
This is something that I’ve been trying to diagnose for a while because I’ve never really thought about my art in terms of a biographical narrative. I think there is a big difference in aesthetic principles in England versus America. There is also generally just different art available, and it is shown in different ways: the prototype of white-walled gallery seems to have greater legacy there, while in New York my experience has been that art is integrated in a more interactive way into the city and its inhabitants’ lives.
These distinctions inform artistic production for me. My exposure to art has been through spending a lot of time in museums and galleries. This is a total generalization but because of this in England I found there to be a greater stress on art as an artistic product rather than as something with function, agency, or an ability to effect change. So I was always much more aware of art in a museum context, with those very specific aesthetic qualities, rather than more dynamic art with punch or chutzpah.
Do you have a favorite museum back home?
Victoria and Albert is really good, Leighton House is this beautiful little wunderkammer [collection of curiosities] of a museum, National Gallery and NPG (National Portrait Gallery).
When would you say you started developing your own style?
My individual style is definitely a recent development. A lot of my drawings used to document artworks and artistic events that I liked, and create an inventory that I could look at and use — but never anything actively creative or ideoplastic. It was always in reference to something or a eulogy to an artist. I think it’s maybe America that has changed me. I’ve now had time to digest this derivative catalog of imagery and come up with an artistic individuality of my own, to synthesize all these things and give new meaning to them rather than just copying.
Would you say that paying homage and drawing inspiration from other artists in that way still incorporates itself into your practice?
Yeah, I think so, in a kind of perverted way though. A lot of my recent art has been in response to my preceding practice of paying homage to artists. I’m now letting myself ridicule that in a way. I’m very attracted to the performance of genres, types, and affected artistic moments, which are all about the artists themselves. My art will always be artist-centered, but instead of being reverent to them, I want to parse through what it means for an artist to make art.
For me, that looks like addressing what art is as a constructed discipline — how it has genre, specific functions, visual cultures; and all these other contrived aspects which are beyond just expression, beyond just trying to convey a message or an idea. In this way, art-making is a very art historical exercise for me. It is as much about the ways in which the artwork exists as the content of it.
In your artist statement, you describe your approach to art-making as “cerebral more than affective.” Can you elaborate on this?
I had this epiphanic moment the other day in class. We’re now looking at Victorian Aestheticist painting (an effete, schoolish late-19th century movement), which is essentially the principal period that I ingested when I was young. I realized how formative that was for me: growing up, the epistemic value of art was very much defined by that era. This movement’s credo is essentially ‘art for art’s sake,’ or ‘art as an end’ — art existing for itself and being a contained event, which doesn’t serve to expedite something else. For me, art has ended up having a much more aesthetic purpose than some of what you currently see today, which is not to say either is definitive at all. A lot of the imagery I was drawn to from my youth is aestheticized. It is luxuriant: nudes draped in silks and reclining on meticulously painted marble architectural units. It’s so vapid but gorgeous and sumptuous and delicious. I think I’ve managed to cling onto that functionality and that definition of art-making; it seeks to be the best at being art rather than being the best at being expression.
How do you explore language in your work?
I guess a good way for me to describe this is with this document on my computer. It’s called “Henry’s Jargon File” or something. Basically, in all the classes I’ve taken here, I add the terminologies we use that I like to a collated list. I really like the culture of ascribing these intellectualized “ism” words to certain tropes or events. So I’ve got this list of things, of these terminologies that I like.
Last year for my poetry class — this is kind of where it started — I would review this document and see ways I could transcribe and transpose these poetic constructs and terminologies into either visual form or my own poetry. That kind of process of conversion is where the playful, linguistic element of my work started. And then subsequently, as I’ve gone into Art History more that has continued. I also think terminology is fun because it’s such a constructed thing. Motifs and tropes are repeated across poets and artists, and they’re so affected and contrived. I’m very drawn to that. So to reinterpret it or deconstruct it in a way, whether visually or lexically, I think is interesting.
Can you describe your creative process?
It’s very chaotic, very volatile. I’m very impatient. At school it’s honestly quick sketches, small scale. This summer was nice; I set up kind of a provisional studio in my bedroom, and I had spatial distinction from everything else. I could really set up and establish process patterns, which I hadn’t had previously because I never really had my own studio space. So as far as process goes, it was recording information in my sketchbooks, synthesizing it in sketches and paintings, and then finally producing a finished sketch or painting. It was kind of tripartite: record information, play with it, then produce. As far as the atmosphere, I’ll put on a playlist that I compiled at some point and exhaust it — listen to it addictively, end up disliking every song on it.
You describe in your artist statement being in a ‘transitional phase’ in terms of how you deal with and think about images. Can you elaborate on this? How has this transition changed your practice?
My work’s recent shift has been very reactive to what I’ve done in the past. I aspired to this grandness in my artwork because I was looking to these very impressive, grand artists. For that reason, my art kind of made lofty claims, and it was very convinced of its own force and quality. I think I’m much more self-deprecating now. I like to criticize ever pretending to assert myself like that artistically. I’m more taken now by the ways in which art fails to live up to its truth claims. There’s a quotation that we mentioned in Art in Britain with Professor Gamer the other day: “Art may be said to be the individual quality of failure, or the individual coefficient of error … in [the artist’s] effort to attain to the expression of form.” Looking at the failures of artists’ attempts to mirror nature really interests me. It’s bound up with this question of performance — performing an artistic value and a certainty that creates pretension.
What have you been working on recently?
All the images I submitted [to Ratrock] were very much from one series In the Big Country: South Haven, its own concept. I’ve gone into a smaller scale for this new series. Drawing and watercolor are great because they’re private, they’re intimate; you can do them on your own terms. For painting you have to set up a performance in some way — there’s an easel, there’s posturing, there’s a lot of grandeur. Artistically, though, watercolor and drawing permitted small concentrated production which was important to me. I also think I am going more into watercolor now because it’s easier to be poetic, quicker with watercolor, to make poetic marks. I think oil painting is quite prosaic and literal, so it’s nice to have that fluidity and fluency with watercolor and pencil. My new series goes into sensitivity a bit more, and it’s a very intuitive thing for me that watercolor is more sensitive and vulnerable than oil paint. Oil paint just has such a history in the Western tradition of being substantial.
What do you mean when you say you are going more into ‘sensitivity’?
This summer I went to my grandparents’ home in rural Michigan, where I spent a lot of time in my childhood. It was an upsetting and destabilizing experience after a year at Columbia—perhaps this is a snobbish thing to say, I don’t know. It was strange for me to go back, and it prompted a lot of introspection and isolation, solipsism, misanthropy, self-doubt, and insecurity. I felt as though I had to make artistic products that reflected that.
These were predominantly self-portraits because it seems like the natural pictorial form for introspective painting. I think for me so much of this resistance to Americana — or to the kind of presiding Michigan culture — was a spatial and physical one. I felt like my body wasn’t the right size; it felt like there was a disunity between the space of Michigan and me. So I tried to convey that in my artworks; I wanted to look at different disparities and dichotomies that exist in art that I could relate to the disparity I felt between me and my environment: disparities of genre, compositional disparities, painterly disparities, etc.
What were some other sources of inspiration for this series?
I was looking to other artists who have that sensitivity and sense of confessional directness. I was looking at Tracey Emin’s lithographs, Louise Bourgeois’ watercolors, which are very raw and vulnerable. I really like them. As far as other artistic inspirations for this I was looking at Regionalism, and Grant Wood, and how they navigate both the alluring and the unsettling visual aspects of Americana and American life. I was also reading Sherwood Anderson’s “Winesburg Ohio,” which is this book that has vignettes of life in small towns, and a lot of it is just about repression and these anxieties that very much resonated with me. It’s told in this fragmented style. The facture of the book kind of reminded me of watercolor in some ways: the brevity, the laconism, and the subsequent assimilation of form and function, verbum and res. There was a connection there.
A movie I watched while making this was “True Stories,” which is a David Byrne movie. It’s very good. The song “The Big Country” by the Talking Heads, too, and “Badlands” by Terrence Malick — all these things look into the ways that American culture is performed visually or musically. I wanted to see how American happiness, the American Dream, is presented visually, and then undercut it. So a lot of my interest is about the phrasing, how assumed happiness is phrased.
Were there any themes, visually or otherwise, that you saw running through your sources of inspiration?
Brilliant simplicity, which I really liked. You see that in Regionalism, where things are just uncannily reduced to the simplicity of blue skies, green lawns. That’s the thing, sometimes the simpler things are presented as the most beautiful in art. The American utopia is very reductive and is held up as this ideal. Ideals are often very simple. Ultimately, a response to that would be that complexity is the real meaning of beauty, which I think I stand by now.