In his new exhibition, artist James Henkel looks back over thirty years of image-making, following a conceptual and formal thread that ties his work together and seems to stubbornly insist on resurfacing. Whatever is discarded, broken, and damaged draws Henkel to it. The objects he collects, assembles, or deconstructs are humble, common, and often no more than the scale of the human hand. Both the patina of wear and the handling that was often the source of the object’s destruction are clearly present. He presents pieces of ceramic pots, bowls, bricks, toys, combs, and well-worn books in their broken fragments. Completely useless now, they remain a testimony to someone’s life. This is what Henkel elevates by photographing these found objects so directly. Tension abounds in his work between the humble and the monumental, between play and decay, between high and low. The artist cross-references grander ideas from art history, painting, and sculpture, while also pointing back to the simpler but profound experience of photographing an ordinary life.
“Still life” is an oxymoron. There is nothing still about life. This may be why we often link the genre to death. In the hierarchy of Western art, still life has always held a humbler, less significant position among art’s subjects, by design reminding the viewer of our own mortality and life’s brevity. The camera too captures and stills life. Many artists have added their own layers of complexity to the genre, but Henkel adds a particularly poignant take on life’s brevity by photographing decay. Finding the sublime among cast-offs and debris, Henkel both confronts and celebrates this contradiction.
This catalog includes an essay by Light Work’s associate director Mary Lee Hodgens.
James Henkel received his MFA in photography in 1974 and taught at the Penland School of Craft for two years before joining the faculty of the University of Minnesota’s Department of Art in 1976, where he is now professor emeritus. He has received grants and fellowships from the Bush Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts, and the McKnight Foundation, and participated in residencies at the Cite des Arts in Paris and at Light Work. Numerous collections hold Henkel’s work including George Eastman House, Houston Museum of Fine Arts, Minneapolis Institute of Arts, SFMOMA, The Whitney Museum of American Art, and Walker Art Center. His many exhibitions include such US sites as Pace McGill Gallery (New York City), SFMOMA, Tracey Morgan Gallery (Asheville), and Yancey Richardson Gallery (New York City), and Henkel has shown his work abroad in Anji, China, at the Museum of Contemporary Art (Teheran), and in Turku, Finland. James Henkel lives and works in Asheville and Penland, NC. He is represented by Tracy Morgan Gallery.