William Henry commentary
William Henry’s own readymade practice has developed from a sustained engagement with the legacy of Duchamp and with Minimalist object-based practice from the 1960s and 1970s.
The move into sculpture and installation-based practice was accidental and began during his time at college whilst he was experimenting with spatial dynamics arising from differing perspective and viewing angles. Coming across some dis-used car tyres and breeze blocks Henry fashioned an entire micro-environment which galvanised an interest in more robust forms of object-based practice.
By his own admission, Henry adopts a systematic and investigative approach to his vocation. Driven by an almost pre-destined work ethic, his professional temperament is informed by strong family antecedents; parents and grandparents were drawn from, and excelled at, the medical and natural science professions whilst other forbears have made distinguished contributions to political publishing and writing. Henry brings a highly empirical and practical sensibility to thinking about and making readymades, an approach which melds with a more creative and lateral take on re-imagining objects and contexts of display.
The post-conceptual readymade is frequently associated with the heterogeneous and the iconography of mass culture. For example, contemporary British artists such as Sue Noble and Tim Webster are well known for their complex assemblages, comprising wide-ranging materials and found objects, deliberately presented in ways which suggest a grungy
aesthetic which is itself reminiscent of the practices of Arte Povera or contemporary object-based work by Sarah Lucas. In contrast, Henry’s objects make sparing use of different materials; aside from the chosen motif or object, concrete and plaster are typically used as the principal mediums. As he notes at interview ‘My aspiration is for an aesthetic which is clear, clean, simple, but with a touch of irony and a sense of the unexpected.’
Early work included a series in which Henry dipped eleven silk ties used in his previous City career into wet concrete Past time (c.2004), the number a symbolic reference to a cricket team – among the artist’s sporting passions. With the temporary, site-specific work, Suits in Concrete, 2007 he went onto a City of London building site and encased the work in the unset concrete screed of a basement floor. The intervention was inherently ambiguous; were the suits sinking or emerging; were these works of transient archaeology, ethnography or happenings in the tradition of Kaprow or Beuys?
With Wasted, 2009 Henry re-fashioned a snooker table but with a hump so rendering play impossible. The title a reference to the artist’s earlier career in the City during the time of the last major recession in the early 1990s; with share and capital prices in freefall and screens turning red, traders spent hours of frustrating downtime playing snooker.
These ideas are most apparent in the series of five urinals completed after the manner of Duchamp, 2009/2010. As with other sculptures, the process is carefully and methodically undertaken. Firstly, a gelfex mould is made of the urinal which is then wax cast; the wax is then melted-off using a blowtorch. The shape is then filled with plaster which is rubbed-down and smoothed in order to give the patina and appearance of industrial enamel.
The bending and manipulation of otherwise unyielding materials using casting and blowtorches extends the idiom of Henry’s work in new and unexpected ways. Although the modernist readymade tradition is not particularly associated with the organic, Henry’s manipulation of materials renders these forms strangely mutable, becoming, in the artist’s own words – ‘‘dysfunctional’ or ‘‘functionless objects.’
Political or social issues are not fore grounded in Henry’s readymade aesthetic, but there is a tacit and personal recognition that the act and process of making is itself one of catharsis. As he has conceded in discussing these works:
“I’m broken and the object is broken, but neither are
rendered useless. I’m not making statements on
politics but about personal illness; they are metaphors
Ostensibly, Henry’s object-based practice suggests a formalist and modernist aesthetic, a sense amplified by the artist’s ambivalence towards choosing formal titles for his readymades. In choosing such, Henry has expressed reservations about the articulation of such a conscious intentionality, which might, as he puts it ‘lead the witness.’ Instead the activated spectator is left to speculate on the intuitions and metaphors suggested by and through Henry’s work.
One recognisable trope in his work are recurrent themes of stasis and entropy. The slowing down of all natural phenomenon were issues explored by earlier object-based practitioners such as Eva Hesse and Robert Smithson, both of whom worked in very different registers of scale and material. But over forty years on these issues have assumed a more radical centrality as governments and their electorates face the consequences of the accelerating depletion and consumption of finite resources.
Planned and future projects suggest an orientation towards scale; a bent table, a partially folded car, house or a tank, the turret and barrel of which have been blowtorched and re-shaped.
All quotes taken from at interview with Grant Pooke, School of Arts,
University of Kent, August 2009