A most significant encounter on Wednesday evening at the private viewing of this year’s ART 15, was that of a brief but beckoning conversation with artist Henry Hussey, represented by Coates & Scarry.
Henry’s large and vibrant textile works are a physical manifestation of the profoundly vast yet less tangible aspects of his emotional register. Bringing together vintage, hand-dyed and printed fabrics with rich embroidery and intricate beading-work, the narrative of Hussey’s work is deeply rooted in personal experiences of specific events – all of which have shaped his outlook on life.
I observe Henry’s approach to serve the vital function of remembering, which is not the opposite of forgetting, but rather its lining. Much of the imagery used is sourced from the artist’s own collection of sketches as well as photographs, such photographs, as explained by C&C are an integral part of Hussey’s working process, as is his work performing with actors from the Royal Shakespeare Company which he uses to research and explore the ways that emotions are expressed through the face and the body.
“We’re really proud that Henry is part of our special Projects, it’s a very big space he’s been given, it’s a very prominent display position and it’s really exiting to give that to an artist who is at the beginning of their career in their twenties.” says fair director Kate Bryan.
“He does make emtotional work, it’s an interesting duality for a young male artist to be working in a field and medium which is more associated with an older female artist – that’s obviously the most unusual dichotomy… but it truly goes far beyond that, because it’s almost as if he is stitching his heart into his works.”
“It’s so great to connect directly with an artist who is so fresh out of the studio, it was almost as if he was trying to figure out the artworks himself. I think we’re a fair that’s prepared to be forward-thinking and risk taking, we could have given that space to an already established artist but ultimately, people respond to the quality of the work and to the originality, and it is authentic, original work.”
With his work currently included in the fair’s Projects, I thought it would be great to sit down and talk more in depth about the genesis behind some of the ideas in his work and some of the difficulties that arise with being so emotionally connected to ones work.
Hi Henry, it’s so great to have you on After Nyne. You’ve explained to me that much of your work is based around the many events of your life. Can you tell me how personal history has worked its way into your craft?
The personal qualities in my works can be traced back to when I transitioned from being a designer to an artist. I studied a 2-Year MA in Textiles at the RCA, however during the first year I had lost sight of what I wanted to accomplish and struggled to make new works. During this tumultuous period I had been writing my dissertation based on the creative-process and had the opportunity to interview Grayson Perry. The conviction and passion infused into his artworks was a revelation and this pushed me to delve deeper into my own experiences in order to create works that are an honest representation of my thought and emotions. Although naturally my artworks have progressed since then, this core principal of making a truthful statement no matter the consequences or how others will perceive it has stayed firmly intact.
Tell me a little abut the practical process in creating your textile pieces, particularly the larger installation pieces exhibited with Coates and Scarry at this year’s ART15.
Before I sew a single stitch I develop a mammoth body of research depending on the concept behind the artwork. An integral part of this is the staging of performance pieces with actors to capture their raw emotions so that when I create the drawings, which feature on the textile works they are inherently sincere and have a genuine pathos. I will back this up with extensively visiting museums and collections to gather a raft of imagery to ground the work in reality however with my heightened use of colour there is a continuous tension present. A liberating aspect to working in textiles is the ability to dye fabrics, as you can begin to create an atmosphere within your works simply by the colour you use and sentiments associated with them. I find it intriguing that you can dye a large piece of fabric red and it immediately becomes bloody and aggressive thereby completely changing the connotation of whatever imagery you place on the piece.
A commonly overseen characteristic of your work when published online is how substantial they are in size. What inspires your decision to create on such an epic scale?
The significance of the size of my works is an impulse to have my thoughts heard, by creating pieces on such a vast scale it enables me the ability to convey these thoughts with a commanding presence. The exquisite textures give the works an alluring property. However because of the size of them they dwarf the viewer and dominate them into submission so that they have to hear my message unequivocally. I am hugely inspired by visiting sites of religious importance in order to see how civilisations and societies worship their gods, as this gives an insight into using scale to install a reverential quality. This can be a double-edge sword as in the commercial art world and as emerging artist it very difficult to sell ambitiously large works. Increasingly I’ve become recognised for doing monumental pieces and I will endeavour to move forward on this scale.
Is there any particular piece out of the four exhibited this year that stand out to you as a favourite or have given you the most satisfaction personally/creatively?
The realisation of the artwork Commitment was a triumph for me, as the piece has a peculiar composition. So to see all the elements come together to form a substantial work was thrilling. The artwork demonstrates my fascination with obscure objects, which when combined with my dramatic drawings caused a rousing result. The piece is based on the traditional skull/dagger tattoos you generally find on a persons forearm, however I wanted to create a piece that brandishes my conviction to my life as an artist. Instead of there being a dagger it is a set of knuckleduster scissors that gloriously encapsulates my artistic practice, as it is both masculine and relates directly to fabrics. Positioned on the blades is a lavishly embroidered self-portrait with my eye clawed out to symbolise that even if I am torn at and ripped apart I keep my eye firmly set on my goals.
Your technique sees a use of several intricate layers. Is it fair to assume these layers are a reflection of the many layers deep embedded in an individual and their “story”?
In practical terms the layering technique I use to assemble my artworks is appliqué, whereby you sew sections of fabrics onto a background material to build up compositions and create a sense of scope with the different textures and imagery used.
Primarily I work with antique fabrics as this gives the pieces both a physical and symbolic weight, as they contain traces of the individuals who once owned them so I channel this tangible sense of history into my finished artworks. The pieces are also multilayered in the respect that each component on the works will have significance to the overall composition. I pride myself on the fact that no matter how small a facet is it will never be there just for decorations it must have a greater purpose. I am following in a long line of tradition, as the act of re-appropriating textiles of religious and spiritual importance has been prevalent for over a thousand years.
If emotion plays such a vital role in your craft, how do you know once a piece is complete?
A good example of an artwork that I struggled to finish was Transition, as it was challenging to resolve the composition and ultimately I felt there was an integral part missing. During a conversation with Eileen Cooper I showed her the work and she said that the piece was missing texture. This immediately drew my thoughts together and I added a spectacular embroidered bat, which fitted into the composition magnificently.
There is an unattainable and allusive quality that I strive to capture in my works, as it installs them with a life of their own and transcends the materials that they are fashioned from. I view each work as a separate entity. I work tirelessly so that they are all have unique expressions of my character and convey the sentiments, which are at the crux of my being.
What are you currently fascinated by and how is it feeding into your work?
I am most excited by the prospect of moving onto my next body of work. Currently I am concluding the project that revolved around confronting my anger and the individual who inhabits this – my father.
Moving forward I have set the stage to begin creating works on the life of Barbara Jane Harrison, who is one of only four women to win the George Cross for Heroism and the only woman to win it during peacetime. She was a stewardess who saved a number of passengers from a BOAC plane crash at Heathrow Airport in 1968 and who eventually perished in the wreckage. I discovered this story nearly two years ago have been struck ever since by her bravery and her sheer act of martyrdom. I have been fascinated by the intrinsic links to Christianity I came across during my research and this has spurred me to fully invest myself down this path.
Do you see your work as relating to any current movement or direction in visual art?
In the past couple of years there has been a resurgence in figurative art that has benefited my artistic practice. Also, an appreciation for meticulously formed artworks has become prevalent in the art world. Truthfully I am unsure of exactly where I reside in the art world. I will not be pigeonholed and will continue to grow as an artist on my own plateau.
If I were to name another artist working in fine art contemporary textiles I would struggle to get past Grayson Perry and Tracey Emin. It is bewildering this medium is virtually untouched, however this has been hugely beneficial for me, as in a sea of painters and sculptors I am highly visible. I am indebted to textiles it has given me the power to convey myself with a tremendous presence and level of authority, which I would struggle to obtain in any other medium.
Henry Hussey was speaking exclusively with After Nyne’s Arts Editor Luciana Garbarni (@LucPierra)
Henry is currently exhibiting at ART15 with Coates & Scarry, booth C12.