Acrylic on canvas
72″ x 48″ x 2″
Photo: The Mary Henry Estate
Courtesy Jeffrey Thomas Fine Art
Prior to “Garden of Delights: Select Paintings by Mary Henry,” the last major Portland exhibition of Henry’s paintings was in May 2009 at PDX Contemporary. The veteran painter, who was especially beloved in the Bay Area and Pacific Northwest, died during the show’s run at the age of 96. Any trace of bitter-sweetness that might have twinged Jeffrey Thomas’s current survey of Henry’s paintings and drawings, however, was dispelled by the bold, sunny exuberance of the works themselves. In the acrylic painting Option (1989), she counter posed perpendicular forms in red, black, and blue atop a bracing white background; a ladder of black rectangles climbs up the picture plane like a Donald Judd Stack or a line of black piano keys. Santander (1987) contrasts a triangle-one of its bases just beyond the picture plane’s edge- and a swelling, belly-like curve, cut through with stripes. The column of red rising like a fount of abstracted blood from the pregnant, biomorphic shape completes an encounter between pure mechanistic geometry and the suggestion of humanity. Indeed, the human hand is evident throughout these works. There are passages in Giverny #2 (1990) in which the brushwork is so textural, it appears sartorial-napped, like suede. An individual touch also informs the suite of drawings judiciously interspersed among the paintings. In these studies for larger pieces, Henry worked through her ideas in finely shaded graphite and colored pencil. The edges may be hard-De Stijl was a major influence, as was Henry’s onetime mentor, László Moholy- Nagy-but the compositions never seem cold. Their accessibility was heightened by Jeffrey Thomas’ well-considered install. Hung roughly at eye level, with their centers of gravity in line with the viewer’s own body, the pieces were eminently relatable, never coming across as imposing or enshrined.
Henry spent most of her life in the idyllic environs of Sonoma and Mendocino Counties in California, and Whidbey Island in Puget Sound. She was an avid gardener (the show’s title alludes to this) and nature lover, and while her paintings exude International- Style rigor, their inspirations lay not in the modernist metropolis, but in the rolling hillsides and crescent-shaped beaches of rural California and Washington. Throughout the exhibition, Henry’s paintings seemed effortlessly to pivot between fastidious geometry and a tender, yearning lyricism.