If you’ve never had the pleasure, there’s nothing quite like a conversation with Berlin artist Patrick Henry. Sitting in the quiet front room of his gallery one day, we talked art and business, aesthetics and politics, and the advantages of getting older. The topics weren’t that clean, they meandered into one another as they must when you’re talking about themes.
I’ve covered Patrick’s career, on and off, for the better part of the last 10 years, including what I take to be the two most important movements in his career: when his art was added to the permanent collection of the Reginald F. Lewis Museum in Baltimore and when he “found” his red paint. Both events were seminal to his work just after the turn of the century, when he began toying with changes in the distinctive style that had brought him regional acclaim.
Patrick’s family and teachers identified him as a natural talent at once and fostered and encouraged those gifts. This was astonishing in itself. Not a lot of young black men in segregation-era Worcester County were encouraged to pursue painting. Not a lot of men of any color were. This is the heyday of watermen and farmers. Labor from all racial sectors was prized above a pursuit of the arts.
Place became critical to Patrick, though, as he started his formal art education. Black artists of the 60s and 70s were particularly committed to depicting urban life. When I asked how common professional rural painters of color were in his generation, Patrick half laughed and then pretended he was going to count them off on his fingers. The era was dominated by people like Ernie Barnes (who did the “Good Times” painting) and the urban intellectual scene. Abstraction was the order of the day, even in representational art.
Patrick’s representational style set him apart from the first. His use of muted colors, and his emphasis on identifiable scenes from identifiable places on the Eastern Shore eventually made his work valuable enough that he was able to quit his day job and paint full time. That is what brought him to the attention of the Lewis museum and made his major exhibit, “Into the Light” a watershed.
He followed it with “Amusement” a show full of color and expression. He had been toying with color for a while, after painting a Barnes-esque reproduction for a friend. It was daring in that it didn’t look like a “Patrick Henry” show. But the paintings were from familiar Eastern Shore scenes, including those from the boardwalk past and present, and still identifiable. From “Amusement” he seemed to double down on rich color and made a series of paintings from the classic cars of Cruisin’ followed by black and white head shots of actors and actresses from the golden age of Hollywood. He punctuated these changes with continuing nods to his roots, producing the occasional landscape, but pushing them as well.
It is nearly an oversimplification, but think of representational art as emotional. It asks the audience to bring their own experience to the act of viewing. Abstract focuses on the intellectual. The viewer is asked to tease meaning out of piece. Art, of course, is a spectrum, so let’s say Rockwell occupies one end of it and Mondrian the other. Between are artists working to find a balance between what they give to the viewer and what they ask of her. As Patrick begins to look toward the next phase of his career, he’ll probably nudge the needle a little further away from the representational.
The stories his paintings have told so far have been his stories, inspired by photographs he took or by places he visited. He only asked his audience to bring their memories of a place and a time to his work. From the landscapes, to the carousel horses, cars and celebrities, the viewer was just asked to feel one way or another about his work.
Going forward, he will ask more of the audience and, he hopes, deliver a new experience to them for their trouble. The work is of scenes, but not places. He’s thinking more about archetypes, using softer lines but more emphasized brush strokes. He invites the viewer to sharpen the lines, to interpret the stroke choices, but still in terms of their attachment to Eastern Shore-type scenes. That is, he increasingly is interested in painting scenes that have no place, no real address in the outside world. Patrick is less and less likely to work from photographs or memory, now, and more likely to work on intuition and will. First he wants you to think about the painting and then feel one way or another about your thoughts. He isn’t tempting you to remember where you’ve seen that place before. He tells you up front you haven’t.
As you get older and become successful you have to make a choice. It isn’t so much about cruising on a hard-earned reputation (although if you can and do, there’s no crime in it) as about understanding your ability to exercise choices. Patrick has cultivated a niche and an audience by delivering his vision and staying true to it. With each layer he has added to his work, he’s established himself as an artist who wants to encourage a conversation about the past and invite contemplation on its relationship to the present. This newest layer calls for viewers not just to identify how they see a scene, but why they choose to see it that way.