Interview with Maxine Henryson: “The pressures and demands of an exhibition can either get you to break through to new territories or have you produce work too quickly”

Artist Maxine Henryson talks about her experience in A.I.R., the presence of the feminine in the work and perceptions on India, a country that has been influencing her artistic researches for many years. More about Maxine Henryson here:

How did you start in A.I.R.?

Well, I always knew about A.I.R.. I lived in Chicago before and at that time there were two women’s galleries there, ARC and Artemisia. I had an exhibition at ARC Gallery; I had a friend who was very active with ARC. So when I was teaching at Bennington College, one of my colleagues became a member of A.I.R. and she told me that I should really think about it. This is just to say that I was aware of the gallery. I didn’t really consider joining until recently.

Why did you decide to join?

I think because one of my interests has always been in the relationships between cultures and how we are similar even though we are different. So an idea of community has always been part of my work. I think also that I wanted to relieve the constant sort of stress of looking for exhibitions and wanted something that would be more consistent. At this point I’m the only photographer in the gallery. There are some artists that use photography as part of their work but they don’t identify as photographers.

How are you involved with it nowadays? You are in the fellowship committee, right?

Yes, I’m chair of the Fellowship Committee. I’m also on the Executive Committee and Offsite Committee. I’m a very active member at this point.


Offsite means exhibitions that do not happen at A.I.R. Gallery. One of those, for example, is on Governors Island. There are old naval officers’ houses there…it’s quite fabulous, these houses with porches and yards. We applied last year for the first time and we did site-specific installations in one of the houses. That’s an example of an offsite. I am organizing an exhibition at ARC Chicago too, that’s another.

And why do you think an initiative like A.I.R. is still important today?

Because I think it allows you to do work that doesn’t have the pressure of the market. So, you know, if you are working with a curator and an art dealer, they have expectations, so I think that being free of that is huge. I mean, I really like to work with curators, but my gallery experience has been mixed. Of course one thing doesn’t exclude the other.

What do you think is the challenge of A.I.R. today?

I think that when you are not under the pressure of a specific curator or an art dealer, the downside is that sometimes people get lazy, sort of speaking. One doesn’t keep challenging oneself. It can work both ways. The pressures and demands of an exhibition can either get you to break through to new territories or have you produce work too quickly. I think that for us, the challenge today is to find the right balance. At the moment, the challenge is also to attract younger women artists, because women’s collectives were very necessary in the 70s. It would appear, initially, that it isn’t necessary now. If you look at the new Whitney Museum there are a lot of women and they are being represented, so there is more consciousness, but on the other hand, just to give you some idea – I think it’s a kind of thermometer – the number of women applying to our Fellowship Program has doubled from one year to the next. So two years ago we had around 200 applications, and last year we had 402. So it gives you some idea that, okay, maybe there are more women artists, but the opportunities haven’t grown in the same way because, to be considered for the Fellowship Program, the applicants cannot have had a solo exhibition in a commercial gallery before.

Do you think women’s participation in the art world has changed over the years?

I think it’s contradictory. You see the new Whitney and you see that they were pretty careful to include a lot of women, but that is just one institution. And one exhibition. So I think it’s still a huge challenge. In terms of auction practices, there is just no comparison. I think it also happens not even on a conscious level. Look who is head of the museums. The number of women working has increased–sometimes it can be even higher than the number of men in the staff–but when you look at the directors of the museums, men are the directors.

About your work, when did the feminine start to interest you?

In the very beginning. I remember being in my second photography class, it was called Photo II, and I included myself in the picture and I made a series that was kind of a dream series, with the figure moving like someone mystical, and I remember the comment by the instructor was “Okay, well, I don’t know whose work this is, but I can sure tell it was done by a woman”. I went through a period when I was determined to not let people know that. But I think pretty much the female figure and the feminine have always been there. When I was photographing and doing a series called American Rights, I was photographing on the streets. I photographed the Nelson Mandela parade and, of course, there were male figures in the pictures, but female has always been dominant in my work. And then, in the most recent book that I’ve done, Ujjayi’s Journey, I’m really interested in the goddesses that are worshiped in India.

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MAXINE HENRYSON –  Dusk, Ganges, Varanasi.  2008, Photograph, Dimensions variable. Source: A.I.R. website

How did you develop this project, UjjayI Journey?

Ujjayi means “the breath,” so I’m sort of playing as if it were a woman’s name, UjjayI Journey, but it’s really the “journey of the breath.” I’ve been in India many times, and initially it was because I was interested, again, in the feminine and the goddesses. But also, I started to do yoga so sometimes I would go for yoga, and other times I would go and travel. Usually I’d travel with one of my students, but always with people who had an interest in the spiritual aspects of India. I’ve been there six times. The first trip was in the 90s with my son. The last was in 2008. The book was published in 2012 and it’s my most recent project.

And what was your perception of women in India?

You know, I have read a lot of Indian writers, a lot of fiction, so it’s a little hard for me to know if that is from my interaction with women from India or if it’s from the knowledge that I have from my constant reading. But about the women, I think that it depends – Indian women in India, or Indian women in the US? I think they are fantastic and they are really strong women. I think in India there is obviously a matter of class, a matter of education. But I think there are the contemporary and the ancient traditions at the same time and that’s actually one of the things that is so interesting about the country; you see things happening simultaneously. And more and more, there are shopping malls and all those sorts of things, so I think there is this westernizing process in India now. But it’s still a fabulous country.

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MAXINE HENRYSON –  Kolam for the deity, Sri Meenakshi-Sundareshwarar Temple, Madurai. 2006, Photograph, Dimensions variable. Source: A.I.R. website

In another project of yours, “In Red Leaves & Golden Curtains,” you said, “I explore my perception of the feminine in the world, examining the differences and similarities among cultures.” What are those similarities and differences, so far?

Well, in that book I travel from Vermont, in the US, to the west – France, Germany, Belgium, Italy, Poland, Russia, India and Cambodia. There are a lot of intersections – religion, family, culture – and there is obviously a color dialogue. The colors that you find in Russia are not the colors that you find in US, for example. Well, there are issues of functions in the society – the moms are almost always the ones taking care of the kids and running the houses. Sadness, happiness, celebration of union between two people – these are pretty much aspects of emotional life that are across all these countries. Birth, death, marriages. The ritual of daily life is very different from one culture to the next. I just have been in Italy, and there they’ll take their time to have the lunch, and to have a nice meal… in the US it’s so fast. I’m a culture junkie, I’m totally fascinated by that.

Do you associate with women’s work, or women’s art?

If you’d asked me who are my influences, well, they are both male and female but… Well, right now I’m super excited that Joan Jonas is representing the America Pavilion in the Venice Bienalle. She is one of my heroines. Joan Mitchell, who has gorgeous paintings. Her painting have always been really important to me. Helen Levitt. If you go to the Whitney you’ll see a film that she did with children, she is an american photographer. Nan Goldin… Luc Tuymans is a painter whose work I’m very interested in. William Eggleston. He is a color photographer; the first exhibition with color photography at MoMa was Eggleston. If I had to pick work to take with me to a deserted island, maybe it would be equal – male and female. I have a wide range of interests and ways of working.


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