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Paint It Black

Artist Mike Henderson explores the farthest reaches of the palette to find light

By Gretchen Giles

I AM LOOKING for a painting that doesn't really have an immediate impact," says painter Mike Henderson quietly. "It slowly reveals to the viewer its story or secret, to sort of build up a conversation, you know, so that when you look at it in the morning it looks one way, and then if you look at it at night or under artificial light, or you light it one way, or you look at it from an angle that's different, you notice different marks or brush strokes. And that's something, too, that I have been trying to develop, this language of being able to speak secret messages that you can only see if you go to the left and look at this painting, or if you look at it in the morning."

A fine arts professor at UC Davis, Henderson is also a filmmaker and a professional guitarist whose career has encompassed stints with such blues greats as Albert Collins. Henderson's "Five-Year Survey" of works comprise one half of the California Museum of Art's latest peek into the abstract. In the museum's black back room, glass artist Gordon Huether's "Uroboros Series," painterly mangled slabs of glass, hang silently above a floor strewn with the glittering crushed diamonds of safety glass.

Painted on large, tactile canvases that at first appear to hold nothing but darkness with the surprise of small bright navels or explosions of paint piled up like desiccated balloons, Henderson's work at first appears to be about nothing but the colors of black. Take a step closer, though, peer onto the heavily built-up canvas--alive as it is with mattes and glosses, scratches, and color revealed--and the work begins to demand an examination of its hues, hillocks, and gashes. Shine the light strong and the paintings jump with the irresistible sheen of an exotic beetle taken out in the sun.

"One of the things that I am focusing on at the basis of this is what happens in a dark room when the lights are turned off," Henderson says thoughtfully, "and your retinas get adjusted to the darkness. Then all of a sudden you start seeing things in the room, and it's not completely empty.

"I'm trying to set it up so that the mystery isn't immediately revealed," he continues. "Gradually, if you spend time with the paintings, I hope they'll slowly keep growing and changing the way that nature does. They always keep evolving, and the light is a big part of the painting."

Henderson, who was doing primarily representative work just five years ago, and who still sketches and draws with his classes, feels that his interest in the abstract is a natural progression. "You always have to start with something," he says, sounding professorial. "You can't abstract nothing. It takes a lifetime to be able to put one dot on the canvas. There's always the joke when people talk about abstract painting. People are always saying 'Oh, it's just scribbles, my dog could do that,'" he chuckles. "But it takes a long time, and then you learn that less means more, and that has to do with when I began to want to move the paintings from the cadmium colors [of] red, green, yellow, blue, straight out of the tube. Looking for colors, I found the earth tones, and looking for a way to make them subtler, I saw that they slowly became dark, and then they became black, and then they slowly began to turn light again.

"The way that they became black was that there was something in me that was trying to make them white all the time," he grins. "I was always trying to make a painting light, and it became dark. And at one point I thought, the answer to this problem is to make them all dark, and I started out that way and then the magic was gone. And then it's 'Uh oh, please forgive me, gods, I'm being too human here, I'm trying to outthink it,' and luckily I got back on the right track."

Henderson's work is problematic, and he wouldn't have it any other way. "I think that one of the biggest things that painting has taught me is that problems are very necessary," he says, wiping the heat from his brow. "I'm not so eager to rush out to resolve all of my difficulties anymore. I'm sort of at a loss when I don't have any, because I understand the importance of them. This whole thing of someday I'll be at peace and I'll be in a place where it's all milk and honey," he laughs, "would be boring as hell, I'm finding out the older I get. Maybe I want to be reborn in downtown New York or Calcutta or someplace, in the midst of the chaos."

What is a problem for a painter? "A great example of a problem is when you have your favorite part--'I did this! Wow!'--but it's only at this corner of the painting," Henderson answers with a grin. "Then you say, 'Well, I'm afraid I'm going to ruin it.' But is it about saving favorite parts, is it about making precious objects, or is it about something else?

"I always relate it to being a matador," he continues. "It's like you can't be a great bullfighter unless you have vicious, big bulls, you know. You need that problem, you need that struggle. Sometimes we need a kick in the butt--it gives us incentive to get up. It's a very complicated mystery."

As a tenured professor who has been working with students for more than 20 years, Henderson feels that he's just beginning to learn about the inside-deep part of his craft. His experience as a musician has helped. "I had an opportunity one time to be around Diz Gillespie for the whole day," he remembers. "[It was] a lot of one-on-one, just me and him sitting around in his hotel room, all day long, just talking. And I asked him, 'Hey, Diz, when you-all invented beebop . . . ,' and he said, 'Invented beebop? Man, that's what they called it! We was just playing.' And that's the same thing that I've heard in art history classes.

"I'm just beginning to digest my first year at the San Francisco Art Institute," Henderson says of the program where he earned his M.F.A. in 1970. "It takes a long time to learn--not regurgitate--but to learn, and I'm enjoying being a part of that."


Mike Henderson's "Five-Year Survey," and Gordon Huether's "Uroboros Series" will be on display through July 14. Reception, Friday, May 10, from 5 to 8 p.m. Artists give a gallery talk on May 16 at 7 p.m. California Museum of Art, LBC, East Mall, 50 Mark West Springs Road, Santa Rosa. $2, non-members. Hours: Wednesday-Sunday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. 527-0297.

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From the May 9-15, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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