Jack Henry on his practice

Jack Henry
on his practice

Oliver Jones, Brooklyn-based sculptor talked to Jack Henry on his art and practice.

I was thinking about recent science fiction movies with future ruin scenarios that are aesthetically related to your work. Annihilation has a psychedelic nature-takes-back-over in a mutated form look. In 12 Monkeys, Bruce Willis goes above ground to a Philadelphia where animals from the zoo have taken back the city. District 9 has a junk assemblage aesthetic. How do you feel about those movies in relation to work and aesthetically is there any crossover?

Aesthetically there’s some crossover from each. out of all three I like that aesthetic of 12 Monkeys the most because it doesn’t seem so far from reach. I think in the future cities are like they are now, only more so. A dense metropolis, and nature will come back, but we may not be here.

Yeah, I think that the future isn’t a perfectly natural or perfectly manicured world but a hybrid of both and that you resign yourself to find the beauty within it. When I was thinking about these references in comparison to your work, I thought yours is actually neo-romantic – nature growing over ruins as the height of beauty.

I want to depict the tension between nature and man-made forces, of which there is a long history in art. But, I think to depict landscape accurately today is to show that the scales have tipped drastically to the side of man-made forces. In my work I combine plant-life and found objects within cast material. The work can been seen as though I’m taking a hopeless stance, but I think of it as a matter-of-fact observation or even hopeful. To consider the landscape today is to realize that some level of human intervention will always be present within it, but as a long as an element of nature is present, its sublime beauty can transcend the conditions put upon it.

So, your work encourages us to be romantic about the future dystopia and the current dystopia?

Even if we want to appreciate the majesty our national parks, they are lands that are preserved and protected from ourselves, so conceptually they’re still under our control. In Yellowstone I hear you’ll find the occasional electric hookups coming out of the ground as you walk around.

Essentially it’s just an amusement park like in Westworld.

Another good sci-fi piece.

You just did a project in Puerto Rico using crushed, cubed steel. It occurred to me that your practice has been leading up to a point where you can just use a trash compactor to make the work – like in your core sample sculptures – but now you can work directly with the junk without intervening

I used a bailer that makes cubes out of metal or really any material you can think of. I’ve essentially been doing the same process on a smaller scale, but I would bind the objects together by casting them in cement or Hydrocal, so this is more efficient.

You were there for four weeks, did you have to figure it all out when you got there?

There was a proposal process, but most of it needed to be figured out there. That was difficult for me at first. I’m used to doing everything by myself in my studio in New York. So working with a foundation, needing to source materials and organize help with heavy machinery was something I had to adjust to, especially since I don’t speak Spanish.

What is the Spanish verb for to crush?

… ‘No comprendo’?

The sculpture is reminiscent of Stonehenge or monolithic works of an archaic Stone Age. Knowing how you’ve worked for a long time, when I saw the piece I thought, Jack couldn’t have done this by himself he clearly had help from ancient aliens

I was the alien! Working on that scale required a lot of help. I worked with a recycling center in Dorado to crush the objects, with Skylift operator to position the blocks and with some landscape architects to figure out the best way to grow and sustain the grass.

So now the foundation has to maintain it, is there an anticipation that it will change as it grows?

I expect it to change. Over time birds will live in it and drop seeds, and in that climate local flora should begin to grow within a few months. So the piece should look very different a year from now. I wanted to use grass for this piece because it’s a material that carries some innate conflicts. On the one hand grass – especially in the form of Hydroseed – is used as a technology to revitalize damaged terrain and promote growth of local flora, on the other hand it’s used as a superficial veneer to beautify commercial developments where local flora was removed. It’s intended to mirror the conflict within the foundation’s mission: an ecologically focused sculpture program that takes place on a beach resort that removed its local flora in favor of an unobstructed view of the ocean. But over time, birds will live in my sculpture and drop seeds, and in that climate local flora will begin to grow within a few months. So the piece should look very different a year from now.

It’s similar to Donald Trump’s seaside golf course in Scotland that he built on a Nature Preserve. The development created erosion problems that messed up his resort and only then did he begin to care about ecological control.

Exactly, the site of my sculpture is on the north shore of the island, where 50 foot sand dunes once were, the dunes protected the inland from major storm surges, but they have been removed in favor of an unobstructed view of the ocean from the resort. But I want to illustrate that despite the negative affects caused by commercial development, advancements in biological technologies may provide a path out of the situation we’ve put ourselves in regarding climate change.

The series of photos I took that you curated into a two-person show a few years ago were taken at a golf course in the desert near Palm Springs. The guy that took me there said that each year they pull out and replace every plant, nothing goes to root. So it remains manicured to perfection like Versailles.

That must be so expensive.

I think that’s the point.

I was thinking that your newer small-scale reliefs that include a lot of plant life and negative space have a lot in common with 19th century Botanical illustrations. The white of the plaster becomes the white of the page making the contrast of everything look like a graphic drawing.

Lately the compositions of the reliefs have included less casting material and more objects and plant life protruding into negative space. The purpose is to highlight the frailty and impermanence of the objects. The negative space allows the objects to be on full display, appreciated for their features. So, in that way the compositions are very similar to 19th century botanical drawings.

so what are you coming back from Puerto Rico to work on?

I have a show at Wasserman Projects in Detroit opening April 26th. I’ll be including a lot of reliefs and large cast columns. A lot of work will be made to for the space so I’m going there to work on the show. And I want the objects in the pieces to be from the area. I grew up just up the road in Flint, MI. So, I want to make work that catches some of spirit of living there without being all Motor-City about it.

Well – to get Motor-City about it – you collect objects from empty lots and abandoned spaces, which there are a lot of out there. As a kid growing up there did a lot of your play take place in those spots?

Those were always the spots that caught my eye and captured my imagination. They were forbidden. As kids we didn’t know why and that made them magic, like something supernatural must have happened there to make them off-limits. So those were the places we wanted to go.

There’s a paradigm relating to that – parents spend a lot of time trying to create a world that’s safe and secure but that creates an adverse reaction in their kids, where it’s like, “let’s go find the place that’s the opposite of that structured safe reality”.

That’s one of the reasons I’m excited for this show. I’ll be going back to where I grew up and collecting things from those spaces.

And you can store all the unsold work in your parents basement.


Jack Henry’s solo exhibition, Surface Yield, is on view at Wasserman Projects in Detroit, Michigan from April 26th to June 29th. More information at wassermanprojects.com.

Photo credit: Derek Brueckner

instagram: jackbhenry