VISUAL ARTS ‌ Little White Lives 

Julie Henson's first solo show lets viewers fill in the blanks

click to enlarge Modernisme artist Julie Henson took old family photos and reworked them in charcoal and conte for her show in Avondale - LESLIE MCKELLAR
  • Leslie McKellar
  • Modernisme artist Julie Henson took old family photos and reworked them in charcoal and conte for her show in Avondale

Julie Henson Alone
On view through April 28
Modernisme
21 Magnolia Road, 763-1551

The free parking, the convivial atmosphere, and — oh, yeah — the art are three good reasons to visit the Modernisme gallery in Avondale when a new exhibition goes up. It's also sandwiched between Voodoo and Al di La, which can turn any visit into a one-stop epicurean bender. After a successful solo show touting the abstract work of Toby Penney, owner Kristy Cifuentes has been encouraged to do more of the same; this month it's the turn of one of the original members of her artists' roster, Julie Henson.

Henson's work is distinctive because of what isn't present in her art. She started out working in sculpting and drawing, then began reducing her subjects' features until she settled on a style of simple, symbolic storytelling. Her characters are monochromatic and faceless, their clothing and surroundings suggested by the simplest of lines and shadows. Yet they're still easy to identify.

Because they have blank, white spaces instead of eyes, noses, or mouths, the subjects have a universal appeal. Looking at "Sunshine," viewers can incorporate their own memories of family trips to the beach. The suggestion of a family posing on a blanket, holding a small child up for the camera, is enough.

For Henson, each image has a very specific memory attached. She's taken her own family photos from the early 20th century onward and reworked them in charcoal and conte. The backgrounds have been changed into simple black (hence the conte) and grey surroundings to increase the universality. In some, like "Anticipation," the young subjects seem lost in space; others — "Beauty Queen," "Enchantment I & II" — continue the beach theme. Only the hats and bathing suits hint at a '40s or '50s period; everything else could have happened anytime, anywhere. Strangely, Henson pushes the Southernness of her series, referring to her own family origins. But you don't have to be Southern to enjoy or appreciate where she's coming from.

Henson explores the amount of information the viewer requires to get the picture. The answer: not much. A couple of lines resembling a veil and bouquet are enough to represent a bride in "The Party;" the artist relies on our stereotypical ideas of what a wedding looks like to fill in more details. Is the bride happy or sad? Old or young? The viewer decides. A case in point: during the show's opening reception, a small child pointed to a minimally crafted figure in "All My Life" and said, "Mommy!" That's what the figure symbolized to the kid, fitting in with his realm of experience.

Henson's filled half a wall with digital C prints, an interesting attempt to re-create the blank-faced series in modern, colorful photographic form. The people in her "Night" series are backlit so we can't see who they are, what they're thinking or feeling. Once again Henson goes for that universality, this time adding other elements such as doors or windows. But weird compositional choices makes the photos less appealing. Low angles are fine, but when the background's askew and it looks like overhanging foliage is stuck to someone's head ("Night III") the photo gets harder to look at.

A couple of sculptures are also on display in this solo show. While the artist's use of silver spoons is clever, the bent and crisscrossed forms they're given are uninspiring. They're fine as a bit of fun, but Henson's a good sculptor who was commissioned not so long ago for a sculpture exhibition for the Middleton Place Foundation. She's right to feature her white figures this month — they're a strong, imaginative introduction for those not familiar with her work. But next time she has a solo show, it would be nice to see more space devoted to her accomplished sculptures.


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