Social Textures: Alicia Henry in the Studio

June 21, 2017 by

We asked Public Art Grant resident Alicia Henry if she had a favorite section of her mural. She does not, and asked us the same question return. Given the scope of style accomplished in just a few hundred square feet, it’s hard to choose any one part. Do we gravitate toward the tightly stretched lines or the splattered paint? Would that reveal something about ourselves?

Located on the exterior wall connecting WSW’s studios and new building, Alicia’s mural will remain on view through the summer. The gridded white and brown surface is separated with black, purple, and blue and when we look more closely, we see that many of the designs are not painted, but nailed to the wall.

Alicia says simply, “It’s another formal expression of line, shape, and texture.” She originally decided to only use paint for the mural, leaving her other materials at home. She changed her mind after arriving to the residency and looked through the studios for elements to add.

At first glance, the piece’s overall structure recalls another large work Alicia made for the Music City Center in Nashville, where she currently lives. Even with her history of working in a large-scale, Alicia will not be pegged as a muralist, or a painter for that matter. She defines herself as a studio artist, working between drawing, sculpture, painting, or installation at whichever scale best suits a project. As she’s not interested in being bound by art world categories, leather, fabric, plastic, and yarn are just some of the many materials she uses in her mixed media practice.

The nails, rope, and painted, waxed cardboard in the mural reinforce overarching references to artmaking—more specifically, printing processes used at the Workshop—that comprises most of the imagery. Along the left side, patterns allude to collagraphs, and painterly monoprints. While the work becomes more representational to the right of the composition, Alicia draws from Cubism to geometric art to naturalism to illustrate a deep range of artistic influence. When looked on as a whole, the mural is an expression of WSW, or Alicia’s interpretation of the community, encompassing process, inspiration, and portraits of what could be artists or models.

The figure is at the center of Alicia’s practice, along with the inherent themes of identity, family, and community. She cannot say for sure how long she’s used people as her primary subject; they’ve always appeared in some way. Her work is often equated to tribal masks, with good reason. She has a wall of masks at home and is fascinated by the daily, ingrained action of figuratively putting up a facade. Rather than looking outwards or historically, as with tribal masks, her art seems introspective. She addresses identity both adopted by and imposed on individuals or communities, and their physical manifestations as social interaction and stereotypes. 

“If you are a person of color in this country, stereotypes have existed and still exist,” she explains. “If you are a female, there are stereotypes of the female body as well. Humans, we like stereotypes—we like abbreviations of things.”

Through her art, anthropological insight merges with the formal exercises of color, line, and material. Today, that means investigating  the forms and texture of WSW and when Alicia returns to her studio, she’ll restart her other projects in the works. While certainly not a stereotype, the mural is an abbreviation of the Workshop, tying imagery together to capture the decades of conversations, voices, and projects that have moved through the space. As a final touch, Alicia adds painted blue paper to the wall. It’s reminiscent of the blue tape she used to mark spots in the composition to revisit, marking her own voice in the mural as well.

See more photos from Alicia’s residency on our Flickr!

Alicia Henry received her B.F.A. from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in Painting and her M.F.A. degree from Yale University School of Art. Henry has been the recipient of numerous awards, fellowships, and grants, for example, 1858 Prize for Contemporary Southern Art award, a Joan Mitchell Foundation Painter and Sculptor Grant, a John Simon Guggenheim fellowship, a Ford Foundation fellowship, a Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown residency, a MacDowell Art Colony residency, a residency at Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, and a residency at Art in General, to mention a few. Henry has been in solo and group exhibitions at the Hunter Museum of American Art, Cheekwood Museum, Frist Center for the Visual Arts, Islip Museum, and the Aldrich Museum. She is currently a Professor of Art at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee.