Learning to Paint

Although she previously worked with mediums ranging from digital media to drawing and sculpture, French artist Camille Henrot had never worked with paint until last month. During a residency at Foundation Memmo in Rome, Henrot spent her days visiting museums and experimenting with fresco. She borrowed the multitude of baroque imagery and combined it with her own research to begin large-scale paintings and bronze sculptures that will be exhibited early next year.

For her 2013 video, “Grosse Fatigue,” in which Henrot explores themes like sexuality, madness, and euphoria through a contemporary lens (think: images of computer desktops, open windows, and browsers), the artist won the Silver Lion Award at the 55th Venice Biennale. Since then, she’s been rapidly rising to the public’s attention. Last year, the artist held her first solo show in New York at the New Museum, won the Nam June Paik Award, and was a finalist for the Hugo Boss Prize. This year, in addition to the residency, she is a finalist for the Absolut Art Award, for which the winner will be announced tomorrow. Near the end of her residency, we spoke with the artist over the phone to talk about all things baroque and what she will do with the prize money of 100,000 Euro if she wins.

EMILY MCDERMOTT: Can you tell me what you’re working on during the residency?  

CAMILLE HENROT: I’m working on new techniques. I’m trying to find a way to make fresco that can be detached from a wall, and I’m trying to find new people who can help me work on a very large scale in bronze. I used to work always with the same person in Paris. In Italy, there are lots of good foundries.

MCDERMOTT: Have you ever worked with fresco before?

HENROT: No, it’s something new. I want to experiment with new techniques and become a “traditional baroque artist.” [laughs]

MCDERMOTT: How do you like working with paint? I know this is the first time you’re working with the medium.

HENROT: Right now I’m making tests to determine the best preparation and which surface is the best for me to paint on. It’s still in the very beginning. I haven’t come across any difficulties since I’m just making tests right now.

MCDERMOTT: Working with baroque imagery is also something new for you, not just in terms of the material, but in terms of the subject matter. Most of your previous work has been very contemporary.

HENROT: Well, in a way, the subjects of some of my drawings ar—depending on your definition—baroque, in the sense of excess, emotion, and eroticism. The drawings I made in 2007 are in this tendency. When I think about the reference to baroque, I’m most interested in how art was integrated into domestic life. That’s why I like fresco, because fresco is part of the wall. It’s art, but it’s decoration at the same time.

Right now, I’m at the Palazzo Ruspoli, a palazzo from the 16th century. There is one floor they refurnished with painting and tapestry. Every surface is decorated—the ceilings, walls, doors, windows. I think it’s interesting to see how art feels most natural in a domestic environment. After this, the [whiteness of a] museum or gallery seems unnatural, or unwelcoming, to art. So I’m interested in making works for museums in a way that make the space feel domestic, and I’m always thinking about how this work will be part of someone’s daily life. Daily life is both the subject and environment of the work I am making.

MCDERMOTT: What about the religious aspect of baroque imagery?

HENROT: Religion is in every aspect of art, when it’s not baroque. What I like about baroque is the reemergence of pre-Christian religion. The art of baroque mixes ancient pre-Christian myths with Christian imagery and each reflects upon the other. A female character could be, at the same time, Venus and Mary Magdalene. If you consider, for example, the Mexican baroque—a movement that occurred when Mexico was occupied by the Spanish—it was a way for the people to express and continue some of their pre-colonial imagery and symbols. Because in fact, the underlying principle of the baroque is the idea of transformation, of movement, and animals becoming man, and man becoming animals, and mythology. It was a way to inspire pre-Christian character.

MCDERMOTT: The Japanese flower arrangements you used to work with were so simplistic and baroque is so ornate. How is the process now different for you?

HENROT: I call those flower arrangements Ikebana, but I’m not sure they can be called proper Ikebana. My Ikebanas are installed as a group together in a room, and they express the idea of abundance. It’s true that in appearance Ikebana and the baroque are contradictory, but the essence of Ikebana is to express the idea of plenitude by using a very limited number of flowers; abundance is being represented by frugality. But baroque is also a style that deals with the essential or primary. The ornament reflects an essential need, the need for movement or transformation, and the idea that you can change a human environment into an organic, living, full-of-life environment.

In the traditional Ikebana, for example, things always have to be asymmetrical, because in this they look more natural and balanced. Ikebana is meant to mimic life in the way it develops; it shouldn’t look like it’s under the control of man. Baroque sculpture and interior design has a quality of creating an environment that seems organic because it’s full of curves and details, like a forest.

MCDERMOTT: That’s similar to what your work deals with in a larger sense, that disruption of the traditional trajectory of art history and moving things into new contexts.

HENROT: That’s not exactly what my art is about, but it is one of the ways it deals with art history. I think my work is about the different strategies man has invented to deal with desire, frustration, fear of death, exhaustion—all those different emotions or states of being in which we experiment. It’s very much about life on earth.

MCDERMOTT: You often use humor to deal with such topics.

HENROT: Of course. A lot of my work deals with this emotion of discouragement or fear, and this emotion cannot be approached without humor because then things become indigestible. You don’t want to eat them; you don’t want to be in contact with them. For me, it’s really important that the experience of art is always something that is able to provoke strong emotion, an emotion that you feel in your heart or your stomach, but also that challenges the brain at the same time. It’s an experience—physical and intellectual. So I think humor is often a very powerful tool to be able to express ideas that are heavy. For me, it would be very difficult to express an opinion about our times without humor. I don’t think you could do that.

For example, the political cartoon, in a way, is one of the highest forms of expression about our times. I don’t believe in dramatic statements when it comes to political critique. It doesn’t communicate in a way that’s subversive enough. In a way, the political cartoon drawings are things that are small and have humor and a childhood aesthetic and are often stronger to spread an opinion.

MCDERMOTT: Speaking about recent times and new media, I know you are on Instagram, but not Facebook or any other social media. Why?

HENROT: It’s not very rational. I know that Instagram now belongs to Facebook, so I cannot really stand on a political pedestal and say, “I’m against Facebook!” [laughs] But I haven’t wanted to be on Facebook from the beginning. I was afraid it would eat too much of my time. I was also afraid of not being wise enough to be in contact with so much information and so many people. I felt like if I was on Facebook, I would probably spend my days looking at people’s profiles, seeing what they do, and feeling bad about not working enough. Then one of my assistants was on Instagram and showed me how it was working. I thought it was playful, the way you go through images, a little like cinema. It’s a bit like a filmstrip that’s animated by your finger.

MCDERMOTT: Research is a huge part of your practice as well. What’s the research process been like during this residency?

HENROT: I haven’t used the internet too much for research during this residency. I’m in Rome and there is so much in the city to see, so maybe it’s a little bit different here. Also, I don’t have internet in my studio here. Whether I’m at home and researching online or whether I’m in the studio just drawing, I think I’m more interested in practical research—discussing with other people, trying to find the exact formula of putting things on the canvas, what is the consistency of paint that works best? And how—what type of molding do I want to use? I’m doing very technical research right now, but at the same time, I’m spending a lot of time in the Palazzo and in the museums. I’m printing [pictures that I take] and making a binder with a mix of internet research and palazzo research that I’m planning to use for the upcoming works.

MCDERMOTT: On another note, what will you do with the awarded money for the Absolut Art Award if you win?

HENROT: I have a very ambitious film project. It will take a lot of time to do; I’m already doing research on it. It’s about today, the days of the week, and about hope for this life—escapism and different ways human beings materialize their lives, whether it’s in religion, in recreation, even via a diet. The Seventh Day Adventists were very obsessed with diet and the surreal, so there’s a bit about that in the film. And a part of the film is about Papua New Guinea, which is a very difficult trip to organize, so that’s why I’ve already started planning. I really hope I can make this project real.

MCDERMOTT: You were just talking about film, you’re currently working on paintings, and you also have done drawing. How do you balance so many different mediums?

HENROT: The film I planned a long time ago. I wrote it almost three years ago when I applied for a residency and a grant to stay in New York. The film projects are always very difficult; you always face problems of access, especially when developing a relationship with a community.

When I feel like I’m not productive enough, I make drawings. It’s relaxing. It’s like going to the gym. If I don’t draw for too long, then I get nervous, and my muscles get sore. The sculpture is also something quite relaxing for me. I like to make sculpture because it makes my life social. When I make drawings, I work alone. When I work with sculpture I have someone I can work with. It puts me in a state that’s very material, very down to earth, whereas I can very easily get disconnected from reality if I am just drawing in the studio. I lose track of time a little bit.

MCDERMOTT: So where do you look for inspiration outside of visual art?

HENROT: Everywhere—my dog, the problem of life in general, insomnia, very, very down to earth, daily things. I often look online when I have a problem, like most people. I’m fascinated by the way there is an answer to all of your questions, whether you wonder how you can stop your dog from destroying your shoes or if you are looking for an answer to a math problem.

MCDERMOTT: How would you describe your approach toward art?

HENROT: [pauses] I think art must be the place where you are protected from the logic of the outside world. But at the same time, it should be an indication of what’s happening in the outside world. Basically, art should remain something that is complex, that has many layers, so there’s always a possibility to reconsider things and have a different perspective. It’s not just an advertisement with one single message that has some authority, political or not. Art has to maintain as large a space for interpretation as possible, and to protect itself from being too narrow.