A few weeks ago, we heard from Roberto Mollá, a visual artist whose work conjures an optimistic world filled with the wonder of anime and the quad-ruled precision of architectural graphics. For Emily Henretta, the role of the urban environment is more ambiguous and seems to refer to experience as much as physical structure. In the second of a series of interviews with artists represented by Christina Ray — a gallery and creative catalyst dedicated to contemporary artwork that explores the relationship between people and places — Henretta shares thoughts on what aspects of city form and city life inspire her process of making and unmaking.
Each of the images shown below is by Henretta; contact Christina Ray to inquire about availability. And stay tuned for more conversations with artists in the coming weeks. Next up: Heather L. Johnson.
One of the things we love about your collages is that they are complex without seeming dystopic. But the titles sometimes hint at a darker view of the urban environment (Stuck in Stone, Stagnant Structure, Stalled Work). What about cities inspires you?
My interest in cities is multifaceted and rooted in my interest in construction, structure, destruction, decay, renovation, chaos and order. I enjoy witnessing the tensions between different, often polar, aspects of the human condition beyond the city. Living in New York compresses of all these forces. And that compressed zone interests me and informs my own making and unmaking of structures. I think the city can be a looking glass for people, to see themselves within physical structure. Perhaps through representing a space in a visual art context my intention is to decontextualize architecture from the mundane, the accepted. As Urban Omnibus keeps reminding us, the built environment is more than something to walk on by; it is formed by the layering of specific choices. I love focussing on the specificity of the world we create, make, navigate. That’s the kind of space that interests me. And right now, for me, that’s New York.
For my last show, I was thinking a lot about structures as monuments to themselves, incomplete forms that existed somewhere between usable space and unintentional sculpture. Some of the titles emerged from what stage I imagined these structures to be in: stalled, stagnant and stuck. These pieces were and are reminders of a particular time when the world kind of stopped.
Are you optimistic about the physical form of cities? Is your work intended to examine the architecture that it depicts, or is the dense urban environment a metaphorical way to explore other topics?
I would say I am cautiously optimistic. My optimism allows for the fear that what we have created may fall down all around us, both metaphorically and physically. I see the city as an idea of a place as well as a physical space. For example, the utopian idea of a “City on the Hill” has always resonated with me as a beautiful notion — probably unattainable, but a great goal. I find mention of that term so often in reviews of buildings in the paper or in a history of architecture book, it seems like a goal worth having and yet failure is really the only option. My optimism recognizes that futility.
I am not wedded to depicting any particular architecture per se, but rather a situation, a moment in time when a structure is captured or rather created by me. I create the structures, they are fragments of other things which is really what I see the city and society as, fragments that hopefully get along, I try to harmonize my fragments, in a formal sense, but there is an inherent disruption I suppose. I personally love architecture – I love looking at it and reading about it – but my work isn’t an attempt to create models for anything to be built, but rather to explore an idea.
To what extent is your work influenced by a particular city or location?
I take a lot of source material from real life. I use very rudimentary documentary techniques: a digital camera, pin-hole camera, polaroid, old Popular Mechanics books, recycled paper. Most of my inspiration is culled from observation: the way a wall sits, or a net is used or abused by wind, simple everyday observations from walking through the city. New York has been a big influence, but so have some hauntingly beautiful washed-out resort hotels in Mexico, where the skeletal structure was all that remained after a process of decay. The ways these buildings became almost like minimalist sculptures inspired me.
Right now, I am working on a large scale paper installation that is made entirely of the off-cuts of from a printing production center — it is a model of decaying city. So I seem to find things to guide or enable my work wherever I go.
The colors in your work are lush, vibrant and unusual for representations of cities. What do you hope to convey with your color palette?
Cities have a lot of color, color that is not limited to the visual palette; it can be read as a sort of vibration or noise. I love color and use it freely without too much analysis. I do floral design and have always really enjoyed playing with color, what works and what doesn’t, how I can break the rules. I think I did that in my last show, particularly with one piece which was bright orange and lavender. The juxtaposition was weird. But I think it worked.
How does your process inform your work? Is there a parallel to be drawn between mixed media collage and the inherently layered growth of cities?
Process is extremely important in my work. Each creative step, each act of labor, functions as a way to articulate how space is made. Each action or gesture leaves a mark, much like in the physical world. I like to leave a bit of a mess in some parts of my work and maintain order in another part… In my new work, I am trying to loosen up my process and see what happens. One of the great things about being so invested in process as an artist is that it allows for the recognition of change.
I always feel the need to pile on layers in my work, whether the work in question is two-dimensional or three-dimensional. I need to keep adding in order to take away, or work subtractively, in depicting space for the eye and mind to inhabit. So yes, the layering is deliberate and refers to the constructed jumble of the city.
The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.