By Joe Nolan
Alicia Henry: 2020-2021 @ Zeitgeist Gallery
February 6, 2021 – March 27, 2021
516 Hagan Street #100
Nashville, TN 37203
Untitled (Multi-Faced Piece) 2020-2021. Courtesy the artist and Zeitgeist Gallery.
Alicia Henry: 2020 and 2021, at Zeitgest Gallery in Nashville, TN, is one of a number of portraiture-centered exhibitions on display across the city. In a review of 21C Museum Hotel’s Fragile Figures: Beings and Time, I suggest that the show offers an antidote to smartphone selfies, “…the most ubiquitous and pervasive expression of portraiture in the 21st century.” At their worst, selfies are reductive avatars served at the buffet of banality simmering on the doomscroll. At their best are Alicia Henry’s layered textile wall sculptures, which can be seen as rough-cut, mysterious, and idiosyncratic contributions to the dynamic language of self portraiture. While selfies travel broadly and indiscriminately, like forest fires or oil spills, Henry’s work is focused on explorations of femininity, identity, community, and isolation.
Untitled (Large Head) 2019-2020. Courtesy the artist and Zeitgeist Gallery.
Henry’s most emblematic pieces are mask-like portraits formed in layered materials adorned with raw markings and hand sewn together, developing a generative form of mark making in its own right while bending the languages of craft into new modes of expression and utility. At first viewing these masks can feel grotesque, Frankensteinian, or harlequin, but after a moment of gazing at the gaping eyes, odd smiles, and misshapen features assembled, these visceral visages throb with pathos and illicit an empathic response.
From Left to Right: Untitled (Flower) 2020-2021, Untitled (Figure with Flowers), Untitled (Flower) 2020-2021, Untitled (Flower) 2020-2021. Courtesy the artist and Zeitgeist Gallery.
I’m writing this review in the middle of a winter storm, and Henry’s inclusion of a number of floral sculptures has my spring fever spiking despite the sleet and snow. These interspersed floral pieces are colorful and seductive, offering brief moments of respite when viewed in contrast to the mask sculptures. Henry roughly chops her tulip-like bulbs along with their stems from various textiles. They’re all attached on top of one another in patchwork bouquets, and Henry adds big stitches of white thread to decorate the outlines of each piece. These collections of stems and petals are full of style and humble grace. The flowers–like Henry’s sewing–could be seen as a commentary on traditional femininity, but I also relish their rich colors, the Warhol-esque repetition of forms, and the graphic combination of elements that read like a nod to pop art.
Left to Right: Untitled (Vertical Line) 2019-2020, Untitled (Vertical Line and Figure) 2019-2020. Courtesy the artist and Zeitgeist Gallery.
In Figure Flowers, the portrait of a young woman appears from behind one of the bouquets pieces. There are no layers here and this face appears most defined, despite a scar of scarlet red thread that slashes from cheek to cheek beneath her nose. This appears to be one of the only faces in the show that isn’t concealed by a mask. As we approach one year of quarantines and social distancing, this piece signifies both the timeliness of this show and the ways in which the pandemic has re-contextualized Henry’s most recognizable works.
Untitled (Head of a Woman) 2019-2020. Courtesy the artist and Zeitgeist Gallery.
Nearly spanning the length of Zeitgeist’s longest wall, the diptych Tree, [date] depicts a silhouetted tree, a black and possibly nude female form, and a nearly life-sized fabric sculpture of a woman wearing an orange dress. A thin line of threaded material conjoins the elements while clearly intersecting at the neck line of one figure.
Untitled (Figures with Tree) 2009. Courtesy the artist and Zeitgeist Gallery.
For me, Henry’s layered masks directly correlate with how our layered identities are perceived by ourselves and others. We’re all palimpsests of identities informed by memories, dogmas, fashions, geography, and history. In this work about ancestry, lineage, and the enduring traumas of slavery, the connecting line reads like a horizon from which we can examine the past which has created this present, and this layer of us.
Joe Nolan is an intermedia artist based in Nashville, TN. His diverse practice includes photography, multimedia paintings, public radio poetry broadcasts, live performances, musical releases, public projects, and his critical writing about art and film.