If ever there was a time for artists to draw inspiration from the blurred lines between reality and artifice in everyday settings – it's now. Mary Henderson's new show, Public Views, at the Lyons Wier Gallery in New York does just that, addressing themes of group identity and the contrast between the public and private self. It shows large collections of people in a variety of settings – exhibitions, political rallies, festivals, sporting events, protests, etc. – but without the inanimate infrastructure to contextualise the groups. Her paintings zoom into the ways in which people present themselves when they choose to take part in a communal experience. Her compositions are relatives of dramatically-lit stage tableaus – their combined positive space creating either sweeping crescendos or feelings of emptiness.
Henderson's group protagonists are perfectly presented – their outfits, hairstyles, and facial expressions are carefully curated. Their graceful poses, although symbolising moments of spontaneity, are polished and graceful, as though they have varnished a version of their private selves for public consumption. Rings a bell? The same description could be used to describe the ritual of social media posing and posting. So where does the private self end and the public one begin?
Cover: Raised Hands, Mary Henderson, 2017, Oil on panel, 40 x 20 in / 102 x 51 cm
Cups, Mary Henderson, 2017, Oil on panel, 60 x 30 in / 151 x 76 cm
"The giant gap between the [private self and the public self] has existed for as long as there have been societies," Henderson says, "I doubt that social-media oversharing is really giving us a new, authentic view into people’s inner lives; what we post is a deliberate choice, and even the most impulsive or exhibitionistic posts are curated on some level". Henderson's paintings are unabashedly self-conscious of their own arrangements – colours are meaningfully coordinated and harmonised, gestures are in communion with each other, depth and contrast is never jarring. They are what we could achieve if we found the perfect filter to hide behind – a beautiful version of how we live altogether.
"It’s difficult not to judge yourself
against social-media perfection
and feel hugely inadequate"
"The categories of things we conceal have changed," Henderson says. "It’s almost certainly easier to be gay and out in many places than it used to be, for example; on the other hand, I have to think that the ability to shape our public personas so carefully has made us more anxious about presenting ourselves in an attractive and appealing way. Even if you’re fairly media-savvy and know better, it’s difficult not to judge yourself against heavily-edited, social-media perfection, feel hugely inadequate, and have that affect what parts of yourself you share with others".
Walnut Street, Mary Henderson, 2017, Gouache on Arches board, 30 x 15 in / 76 x 38 cm
"Right now, consumers and
tech companies share an
investment in pretending
that we have privacy"
So does Henderson's preoccupation with the public persona reflect her own anxiety about modern-day hyper-documentation? "I’m old enough that the stakes of social-media documentation are fairly low – nobody was posting my adolescent and young-adult stupidity online," she says. "I have kids, though, and they won’t have the luxury of being laissez-faire about their privacy, because, for them, in this environment, the consequences of being exposed as a normal, idiotic adolescent are potentially grave. So I hope they’ll develop a healthy level of anxiety, or at the very least, learn to assume they’re always being documented for all to see when they’re out in public".
Do these paintings, then, symbolise the total demise of privacy? Has privacy been completely obliterated?
"I think we’re more or less there; we just haven’t fully come to terms with it. Our inner lives will always exist in conflict with our outward personas. But, in contrast to social-media personas, which are still so carefully curated, our data trails are totally raw and authentic. It doesn’t feel so dystopian when a Google search leads to ads for nice clothes in your Instagram feed, but we’ve all had those moments when an ad feels a little too on-the-nose and it starts to feel creepy. Right now, consumers and tech companies share an investment in pretending that we have privacy, but that doesn’t feel tenable in the long term. It’s going to break down at some point, and I have no idea what happens after that".
Climbers, Mary Henderson, 2017, Gouache on Arches board, 30 x 15 in / 76 x 38 cm
Henderson's paintings are meticulously rendered, thoughtful and painstaking. A composition emulating a fleeting moment might take four to six weeks to complete; in general Henderson says it takes her about two years to produce a show. This stretch of time and its contrast with the time it takes to press a button on a smartphone, brings the poignancy of an unremarkable instant being documented into sheer clarity and turns it into a phenomenon. Because it takes no time to capture a passing moment, but with the constructs of privacy so starkly in question, how much would it take to erase it?