Andrew Hendrixson is a visual artist whose work has been shown in galleries from New York City to Gainesville, Florida, Cincinnati, Ohio to Lubbock, Texas. Since receiving his MFA from the University of Florida, he has engaged the art world as a critic, a lecturer, and a professor. He regularly pursues opportunities to commune with other artists, a recent example being his 8-month residency in Miami with renowned artist, Enrique Martinez Celaya. Currently, as he continues these conversations with and about art in his studio and his classroom, he has added another layer to the exchange by setting up art shows in homes across the country. In the interview that follows, he discusses his art and his hopes for his most recent and ongoing project, The House Shows.
Elizabeth: Before discussing The House Shows, can you speak about your art more generally?
Andrew: I love things that are beautiful, but the art that I gravitate toward has something to offer about how to be in the world. I need more than just distraction. I almost always feel let down by what I see in contemporary art. At times, I’ve felt like I’m in the wrong discipline. Other times I’ve wondered if I expect too much of the arts, but I don’t think I do. What I need is to know that I’m not the only person in the world feeling clunky and alone. My art comes directly out of my own thoughts and questions. It’s visual thinking, rather than visual asserting.
E: You frequently have iterations of certain images in your paintings. How do these images surface for you, and what are you doing with them on the canvas?
A: I see these images as metaphors I’m latching onto to understand how to be in the world. I’m using the resonance of these images, what we already know about them, to reach an understanding that isn’t possible if we just recount our own personal experiences. I’m often taking an incredibly simple form and suggesting that there is an entire body of thought that yields this form. Metaphor addresses the things for which we don’t have language but recognize nonetheless. I don’t use metaphor as a way of being aloof or elusive or creating mystique. It’s not a trick. Rather, it’s for my own clarity and the hope of a wider, more communal understanding. It’s always at the service of empathy.
E: And your pursuit of how to be in the world, how to be empathetic, and how to create art that widens our communal understanding is connected to your House Shows Project. What does a house show looks like?
A: The hosts invite people into their homes where we’ve installed my art on their walls. People mill around for a few minutes, and then we gather in one room to talk. Folks pile in, sometimes sitting cross-legged on the floor or on the arms of chairs. My wife opens us with a reading of William Stafford’s A Ritual to Read to Each Other. Then I talk about why art matters and the ways I hope my art and this project might redefine the role of art in people’s lives.
E: Why that poem of Stafford’s?
A: Because it is the aspiration of the house shows. A “pattern that others made” is prevailing in the world, and we are “following the wrong god home.” The poem demands a lot of us. This project is my best attempt to respond to the admonition to remain awake and invite others to do the same, because “the darkness around us is deep.”
E: What prompted The House Shows project?
A: The idea has been building for years out of accumulated frustrations with what I found to be problematic in the existing structures of the art world. My family of origin does not believe the visual arts are for them. I don’t think they are alone in this belief. Often paintings only serve to hold a space on a wall. We assume art has nothing to say to our lives. Art doesn’t have any real presence for us, and that’s a problem. If thoughtfulness is for everyone, how do we actually make concrete examples of this fact? We often allow perceived powers to establish what is or isn’t valuable and who is or isn’t interesting.
I’ve walked into a fine arts gallery in Chelsea where all the workers are wearing Bottega suits, and no one lifts their heads to look at me. I’ve walked into a public library where I see a painting placed high above the bookshelves alongside posters or flyers. At the gallery, I feel I’m not important enough to be there, and at the public library there’s little to distinguish the art from the flyer advertising an apartment for rent. At both ends of the spectrum, the art is either inhospitable or in an inhospitable space. So where do we go to have an encounter that matters with a work of art? Where can we go where it’s presented in a way that we know is for us—where it isn’t antagonistic toward us? There arent a lot of options that exist for art. We have either local craft festivals or high-end galleries—very little in between. But when we make a new option, suddenly that option exists. That’s part of what I hope comes from this project.
E: You often speak of the role tension plays in the process of creating art. While a cozy evening in someone’s living room talking about what you love sounds inviting, what tensions are there for you?
A: I cannot assume the guests will have any previous understanding of or experience with the arts. Certain vernacular or art history references might be unfamiliar to them. I have to actually say what I mean and not hide behind the assumption of shared understanding. I also have to figure out how to let the work do its thing and not feel like I have to unpack it verbally. Anything I say about a particular painting will be less than what the painting is saying, hence the need for the painting. But I can at least give context, sharing what informed the making of the painting. The work will still be distinct from what I say.
E: How has the engagement been with viewers?
A: People have been earnest and receptive. They quickly recognize that the evening’s discussions are going to be about what matters most to them–things they might not often have the opportunity to talk about. Though we’re strangers, we have real human moments and intimate conversations together. We skip over all that get-to-know-you stuff and go to the heart of human experience immediately. I think people are relieved that it’s so confrontational so quickly.
E: That’s a real distinction. If they walk into a gallery and look at, say, one of your axe paintings, no one is going to tell them, “This is what matters most to the artist. You’re engaging in an honest conversation.”
A: Because so much of contemporary art isn’t about what matters most. We’re so jaded, and probably beneath it all, we’re so hurt that we rarely even try to have these conversations anymore.
E: So what matters most? What are the questions that are at the heart of these conversations?
A: They’re questions of being—the persistent and remaining questions. How should we be in the world? Where are we doing that well and where we are we not? What should or shouldn’t we give our time to?
It’s important to know other people have the same persistent questions we have. This creates the possibility of empathy for one another. If I’m just giving you cynicism and wit in my art, or even just proficiency with a brush, we never have the opportunity to talk about anything that actually matters. Anything we do talk about will be adjacent to our lives. So much of contemporary art is on the periphery of our experience. We already know what happens on the other side of carelessness and apathy. But what’s less known is compassion, empathy, non-passivity.
E: If I could trust that the art I see in a gallery is asking those questions, my entire experience there would change. If I can believe a painting is asking about questions of being, then I know how to begin to engage it.
A: The House Shows have only affirmed my desire to make work that is rooted in my own questions rather than in visual whimsy. People are responding to this and recognizing the intention of the work. These shows also make me have to be increasingly more genuine in what I say I think and believe. I cannot hide behind my insecurities like I would be able to in the gallery. The house shows are constantly confrontational for me.
E: How has it been adjusting to a different kind of space for your art? You have to accept that a painting might hang on a scuffed wall or next to a light switch. Is that compromising the work of art? Is anything lost when the lighting isn’t perfect or when it’s hanging close to the quilt grandma made?
A: The austerity of the gallery is lost. I do love the perfect track lighting, the perfect halo around the painting, and the perfect shadows between the paintings. In a gallery, everything is so fixed to be lovely. But, what is that? Those aren’t the lives we live. Our lives and homes and thoughts are not that tidy. When the painting is three inches from a light switch, I can’t hide behind perfect track lighting and perfectly light grey walls. It makes the art have to be good, and hopefully really good, because now it must contend with the light switch and grandma’s quilt. More to the point, and even if I begrudge this, the art actually BELONGS between the light switch and grandma’s quilt because that’s the space in which we’re living. The manicured tidiness of the gallery has nothing to do with the lives we have. But art in the living room…
E: Currently, what are you working on in the studio?
A: I’m exploring the walls of Jericho in some studies, drawings and on a few canvases. Scripture is full of these victories of obedience. God tells his people to walk around a wall seven times, and it falls. He tells them to do this other thing, and it works. Take up your mat and walk—it works. I don’t always see those kinds of results in life. So I’m poking at Jericho as an idea. I would love to walk around the wall seven times and watch it fall. I could then think, “That’s great! I’m obedient, and it works.” But what if it doesn’t work? What if the walls never fall? Will I still keep walking? At worst it’s long-suffering, and at best it’s hope—if I’m active and not passive, if I keep participating, if I show up and walk around seven times today maybe they will fall eventually.
E: It’s interesting, because there is long-suffering in scripture: wilderness wandering, the exile, instances where people never saw the fruit of their obedience. But you’re mining these shorter stories that supply convenient images, which is often how we absorb them. The longer stories of exile or wandering don’t have those clear “pow!” moments with quick results. You’re drawing attention to those longer stories without mentioning them by taking to task the shorter narratives that are so easy to tell and cling to and recall with an image.
A: Thus far, those shorter stories don’t pan out in the world in which I live. I can’t get my head around those kinds of results. Does my understanding of them need to change? Or do I need to change? Maybe I need to not look for the walls to fall down. Maybe results don’t even matter. Wendell Berry says we don’t have the right to ask questions about results. We just do it because it’s right.
More of Hendrixson’s work as well as information about upcoming house shows in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Cincinnati, Nashville, and Chicago can be found here.