Influenced by her upbringing in a theatrical and artistic family, Delphine Hennelly uses her unique eye along with her creative energy gained from this environment in her endlessly captivating paintings. Her large-scale compositions are filled with dynamic patterns and overlaying colors that blur and obscure her subjects, inviting the viewer to further investigate the subjects in her work. Her use of powerful visual elements such as hazy compositions, bold colors, and poses that reference classical painting form an aesthetic language that is both entrancing and fascinating.
Bits and pieces of different art genres and movements inspire Hennelly’s complex work, ranging from textile arts, to early Modernism, to British political cartoons. Her paintings hang like tapestries, with horizontal and intersecting painted lines traveling through the compositions like woven thread. Earning both her BFA and her MFA in art, we discuss with the artist the dramatic impact of her art education on her current practice. Join us as we explore Hennelly’s investigation in color palettes, her experience primarily painting the figure, and her thoughts on the benefits of a ‘creative block.’
AMM: Let’s begin with where your interest in art began. Did you grow up in an artistic environment?
DH: During the years that I was growing up in Vancouver, B.C., my parents founded and ran a theater company called Open Theater Company. Their theatrical influences were Bertolt Brecht and his drama-as-a-medium principle, as well as the director Peter Brook, who continues from this line of thought. Conversations around the dinner table were often around theories of “the defamiliarization effect” and I understood the concept of “breaking the fourth wall” at a very young age! My dad would find unusual spaces such as empty warehouses that he would build sets into and outfit with theater seats, basically transforming the spaces into performance spaces with an open concept — hence the company name. My mum would design the sets and costumes and they both also acted in many of the plays. My siblings and I, as well as other kids of the theater group, were given a lot of freedom in this environment. We had the run of these spaces and back stage. We were often onstage during performances. Obviously, we took our part in those moments very seriously. When I was six, I had a role playing Micheal, the child in “Caucasian Chalk Circle” by Bertolt Brecht, this time in a traditional theatre space. I shared the role with another kid — we alternated performance nights. I remember watching the play through tears when closing night fell on his turn. I was so jealous!
Rehearsals were always happening at our house and I remember vividly the racks of period costumes that my mum would sew and piece together. I loved pouring over the many sketchbooks of my mums costume designs and loved seeing how the construction paper shapes and drawings would manifest into to ribbon and button details. My mum would also paint and I was always fascinated by her paint tubes — which I was not allowed to touch! Actually, when I began my interest in being an artist, I initially approached it through sculpture, as painting felt like my mothers territory.
AMM: Many of your paintings have this incredibly fascinating, blurry aesthetic along with these obscuring horizontal lines in the composition. Can you talk a little about these elements and what you are trying to achieve through them?
DH: The horizontal lines came about as a way to change up my brush mark. I had been painting in a flat, poster-like way. I remain interested in the idea of posterization, which is basically a digital term for reducing a photographic image to fewer tones. I continue to be interested in achieving a cartoon-like readability. However, at this point, this idea began to feel facile and I felt like I needed to shatter this format somehow. I had gone to the Metropolitan Museum in New York to see a Max Beckman show and happened to walk by some tapestries. Looking closely at the weave of the tapestries I had a kind of eureka moment where I was like, “I know! I’ll go back to the studio and paint the weave of the tapestry!” Obviously, I painted a simplified version, which became the horizontal lines. Replacing thread with the brushstroke, it was the parts of the tapestry that were frayed that were interesting to me — the effect of looking at something worn by the ages was a quality I wanted to replicate. The digital quality of the image that would come together through this succession of ‘buzzing’ marks, paired with the concept of a woven tapestry lending itself to a raster effect or interlaced video, was immensely appealing to me. I began to see the images as having a shallow depth of field, like in the space of a screen. I liked the idea of the content of the painting being subjected to the formalism of a pixelated image.
AMM: Let’s talk about your painting process. Have you always painted in a large scale? Using such stunning palettes, do you plan out what colors you will be using or do you experiment on the canvas?
DH: I often envision a painting through its color scheme before I sense the subject or composition. I mix my palette beforehand following an idea I might have of an overall color ‘feel’ of an image I hope to make. I will spend an entire day or even two mixing colors before I begin the painting. But this doesn’t always mean that the painting turns out restricted to what I have planned. Often as the image comes together, I will see that I need to change something, like a color that is just not working on the canvas alongside another color that might have looked fine on the table. So I will adjust as I go on the canvas at this point. Also, scale has always been a point of contention for me! I always feel like I never have enough space! I have been trying to reduce my scale. There is such a beauty in small paintings — like a neat little package.
AMM: Last year you graduate with your MFA from Mason Gross School of the Arts in Rutgers, New Jersey. How did that experience shaped your practice? How do you think your work has changed, if at all, since being in graduate school?
DH: Grad school gave me the privilege of unrestricted time to make my work. The continual dialogue that happened around the work gave me permission, in a way. I was given the permission to pursue my ideas whether or not they were fully formed, and it freed me up, allowing me to accelerate the time between decisions. Grad school changed my process in that respect. It taught me how to have confidence within doubt. Much of that has a lot to do with the program at Rutgers. It was a very nurturing environment. It was definitely tough, but tough within reason. The faculty there is just so brilliant and they were undoubtedly devoted to my development, which is gold for any artist. Hanneline Rodgeberg, was a strong force in my studio. She had also taught me at Cooper Union when I was an undergrad 12 years prior, so I felt like I had a long relationship with her, at least from my end. It was fruitful to have that history. I also loved working with Marc Handelman, whose work I had admired for years! Marc was tirelessly generous with his knowledge and time. It took only one studio visit with Aki Sasamoto — during which we listened to the jazz piece March by Anthony Braxton on repeat — to literally change the course of my entire thesis show three weeks prior to the opening!
AMM: There seem to be hints of different art historical influences, such as early modernist artist Marc Chagall. What art historical movement or style do you find the most inspiring?
DH: I feel that much of my painting ideas begin with an art historical reference. In some ways it sort of always stems from there. When I was at Cooper Union, I remember professors telling me I needed to get out of the French school and look at more American painters! I was heavily influenced by early Modernism, which I learned from my home life and family education. As I mentioned, my mother painted, and so I initially learned from her interests and her books. I have of course forayed out and grown my influences beyond Early Modernism, but the seeds were put there early on and I suppose I cannot escape it! I do tend to sort of ‘live’ in art history and it is less likely for me to look towards my life or my surroundings for material. I see painting in a way that it is a language, so it makes sense to spend a lot of time scavenging for information or ideas within this context. That being said, I have no hierarchy to the order of my interests and I don’t just look to painting for influences. Textiles and the decorative arts have also been heavily influences. At the moment, I have been looking at late 18th century British Political cartoons and 18th century Transferware, also British. I am also very interested in performance and staging, such as stage design and architectural design, perhaps also as a result of early influences.
AMM: Much of your compositions gravitate around the figure. Has the figure always been an important subject in your work?
DH: I have always considered myself a figurative painter. However, most of my most important artistic influences have come from abstract painters, such as my professors at Cooper Union, Jaqueline Humphries, and Robert Bordo. I also worked, for most of my formative years, with the painters Lydia Dona, Stephen Ellis, and Dan Walsh who were all important players in the Neo-Geo movement during the 90’s in New York, and who have all influenced me tremendously. As a result of these relationships I’ve developed quite early on, I developed an interest in formalism and hard edge abstraction. Although the figure tends to carry the theme in my imagery, it is ideas around or against these ideas of abstraction that drive most of my decision-making. In this respect, I have a hard time thinking of myself as a narrative painter, although narratives tend to accompany figurative work, whether one likes it or not! In some ways, this is my conundrum as a figurative painter and I am always pushing or pulling within this dichotomy. I suppose in many ways this is why I remain tied to the figure, as it offers me the problems I want to have.
AMM: Your artwork has such a clear voice that is distinctly your own. Was there any trial and error in finding your unique style, or do you feel there was a natural progression to your work now?
DH: I would have to say my work has just been a continual, natural progression. I do have an idiosyncratic look to my work and it has actually taken me a long time to embrace this fact!
AMM: Can you tell us about this doubling of the figure, along with other compositional elements, that are present in many of your recent paintings?
DH: The doubling of the figure and the use of repetitive motifs — such as the rock or flower motif — goes back to my interest in formalism. It developed out of a desire to negate the figure or figurative motif, not so much as a form of erasure, but rather as a way to upend or stretch meaning. For example, the doubling of the female figure carrying a baby on her back came from a wish to subvert and avoid the saccharine and sentimental idea of the iconic, ubiquitous, image of mother and child. The doubling combined with the lenticular effect of the brushwork was an instance where form and function fused beautifully; opening up painting possibilities that weren’t available to me before. This let me off the hook in terms of needing to provide a narrative, and It was beautiful! It was exactly the kind of synthesis I had been working towards for a long time.
AMM: What do you do when you experience a creative block?
DH: I am not sure I ever experience creative blocks, or perhaps I experience them all the time! Either way, I have an attitude about it that it is just part of the process. I have come to learn that what feels like a creative block can actually be when the most creative thinking is actually happening. Without those seemingly turgid moments of considerations and waffling, some of the actual legwork wouldn’t be possible. It can’t always be putting paint down and making it into an image — at least not for me. Any image I make has to come from something, even if it is just an inkling of an idea. There is always a period of stepping away and being receptive to influence or ideas in order to garner the meaning of the work that I want to do. This doesn’t happen through any kind of concrete articulation or full understanding, and this can often be mistaken for creative blockage. However, it is actually is the opposite!
That being said, I do get frustrated, mostly after pushing paint around for too many hours with seemingly no result in sight, or when I have been staring at paint for too long and I just can’t see it anymore. Then I go home and cook. This is when I really love to cook and I think to myself, maybe I should become a chef? I also find that a trip to the museum is all it takes to get back into the mood to paint; preferably a visit to one of the rooms of ancient antiquity or the 17th century ceramics — or maybe even some fabric or textile. I’ll approach my visit to the museum in these instances with a completely open attitude and just follow my nose. Usually, I want to see something unexpected to jolt me out of my conundrum.
AMM: What has been your favorite moment as an artist so far? What are some things you are looking forward to coming up?
DH: I would have to say that my favorite moment as an artist is right now. It is always right now. I remember the first painting I made when I was seventeen or so, and it was good. That was a thrilling realization — that I could do this. I guess I am sort of still chasing that thrill and it’s exhilarating to be in that chase. Right now, I am making work for three shows all opening the same day: April 14. I’ll be in a two-person show with Milo-Moyer-Battick at Harpy Gallery in New Jersey, and a group show at Part 2 Gallery in Oakland, California, as well as a group show at Mother Gallery Upstate in Beacon, I am excited about many of the participating artists work in all three shows and I’m looking forward to seeing how it will all come together.
Find out more about the artist: www.delphinehennelly.com
Text and interview by Christina Nafziger.