Cathy Henderson, Ebb and Flow. at the ADF Gallery, Belfast, 17 January – 7 March 2014

Cathy Henderson, West Kerry Winter Skyscape, 2012, oil on linen. The three smaller paintings have the shared title of Blasket Skyscape, 2012, oil on linen, and a consecutive numbers 1,2,3.

Cathy Henderson exhibited  twenty images  aiming “…to capture the transience of the coastal view: a sense of shifting skies, and the persistently fluctuating mood of weather.” (News Release January 2014).


Transience, shifting, fluctuating…the words point to the experience described by Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966) when modelling in clay the nose on the portrait of his brother Diego: “…it is impossible to model a figure having my attention atomised by study of details…” He compared the distance between one nostril and the other to Sahara desert where nothing helps to be fixed, everything escapes.

It is impossible to do a thing the way I see it because the closer I get the more differently I see.  Alberto Giacometti

His solution ? “As I wanted to realise what I saw I started work from memory… I have thrown aside my studies made of a head…I started again from memory.”

Cathy Henderson also throws away her sketches:  She says of the paintings:” They are mostly rapidly worked pictures, however, work in this land and seascape series rarely comes together rapidly, being the distillation of many more discarded sketches, studies and drawings.” (ibidem)

A classical academy pattern  of preparation is upheld and then discarded. The distillation  implies a reduction of quantity.  The small  Blasket  Skyscape  paintings illustrate that.

Cathy Henderson , Blasket Skyscape,1,3,4, 2012, oil on linen

The low horizon is isomorphic, it is the core of the observed nature, something stable, always already there. The clouds, the light are there by chance, a result of a change, and, paradoxically of  (natural) continuity. The art work opens up in its own way the being, and offers the likely story about the world. The paintings contain intelligible translation of a sensual and of the perishing, becoming  agalma in which the eye takes delight. What is painted is the commitment to a distinct memory.

Cathy Henderson, Strangford Narrows 4, 2012, acrylic on canvas

The “distillation”  can be a disadvantage when it reduces the being to too much of concealment.  At the time when visual arts capitulate to words, to sound, to movement, to quotations, recycling, found objects, etc., it may be assumed that people desire these hybrid works, for being bored with the mute poetry of painting.  Visual arts are bend on their own removal  or at least downgrading. Painting has been pronounced dead several times over the last hundred years. The proudly autonomous modernist painting sentenced landscape painting to obsolescence. Henderson’s subject and mode of work reaches back into history. In anti-heroic manner she searches for a kind of renaissance of the idea that the boundless pictorial space makes the central location more precarious. Centrality can be only defined in relation to the boundaries.  The reduction of the palette  makes distance to operate in contradictory way: it oscillates and increases visual weight of some marks. That makes the composition more active. And confidently visual ( I see a touch of tactile sensation in the bigger flat marks).

These seascapes are not subjudicated to a narrative in the way early landscapes were.

It was Nietzsche who proposed that the great ideas have tendency to arrive on tiptoe. Sometimes they depart that way too.  The painting of  landscape, seascape and skyscape neither arrived nor left on tiptoe.  The  first western paradigm of landscape, apart from the earlier symbolic stage, appeared in biblical stories. Giotto di Bondone (1267 -1337)  illustrates the narrative of Mary Magdalene journey to Egypt by a set of internationally transferable signs:  a tree, a wave of sea water, a harbour, an island, disregarding observable time and place.  Note, there is no optical perspective, all parts are painted from movable angle and distance, to present the known, not the observed.

Giotto -Life-of-Mary-Magdalene--Mary-Magdalene's-Voyage-to-Marseilles-1320

The shift to observation happened also in Italy, in the 15th C.Alesso Baldovinetti  split up a fresco on a lunette on one side of the door to the cloister of Santa Annunziata in Florence between the Nativity and a landscape .

Alesso Baldovinetti, Nativity, Santissima Annunziata, Chiostrino dei Voti, Firenze, 1462

The salient points are the optical illusion of receding horizon and the  placement of the horizon  high above the heads of the large biblical figures, placed, incorrectly, in the hills surrounding Florence.

The  skyscape appeared in a supporting role in a quasi historical painting, when a group of German painters  belonging to so called  Danube School  gave observation  of nature  the status equivalent to the literary or historical narratives.

Altdorfer 4 pinakothek

Albrecht Altdorfer, The Battle of Issus, 1529, Alte Pinakothek, Munich

The art system  of the time  insisted on the hierarchy of biblical and historical narratives. It changed in the 17th C  with  the confident emancipation of portrait, still life, landscape and seascape  by Dutch painters It  was soon followed by the French ( Claude, Poussin) and others.  The Dutch preferred the low horizon, when the Italian painting stayed with the small sky above the high horizon.  There are clear compositional consequences for the interaction between projection and depth, e.g. superposition of details/objects and gradients of size and/or brightness.

Jacob van Ruisdael,

Jacob van Ruisdael, Landscape with a Wheatfield, 1650-1660, oil on canvas, The J. Paul Getty Museum

Henderson eliminates those consequences by placing the vanishing point off  centre. The pictorial space is shown as boundless. Consequently there is no centre, because that can be defines only in relation to the boundaries of the space. That is replaced by the edge of the canvas turning behind the image. The painting is about places: Crookhaven, Ballycastle,Roundstone, Wicklow, Strangford Narrows, Achill, West Kerry, and Blasket islands. They are also about the painting itself.

Several of the Ebb and Flow paintings challenge the pessimism surrounding contemporary  painting vis a vis other newer media and concepts (e.g. painting cannot be just painting). The painting  does it through a boundless  skyscape in limited, as if disabled,  palette of greys.  Significantly, the subject is  not in a supporting role.  It does not  hide in autonomous abstraction.  The paintings are confident and favour the Dutch tradition of low horizon, where sea and land,  sky and sea,  and land and sky meet.  A  comparison with a detail from  Ruisdael’s View of Haarlem below, provides other shared points: layering of clouds and gaps between them, the material characteristics of the cloud, type of the cloud, the highlights. They connect the contemporary  understated  paintings to the most glorious history of landscape and seascape in West European art in a gentle wave of empathy.

Ruisdael View of Haarlem

Detail of the View of Haarlem

Images of Henderson’s paintings courtesy of ADF  Gallery.

About Slavka Sverakova

writer on art
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