The Substance of Grief: Nelson Henricks Deepens the Black Page

Nelson Henricks, "Lacuna (Black Page) 8,"  2018. Courtesy Paul Petro Contemporary Art.

In the course of my grieving, I lost my capacity to represent my grief to others. There were no useful tools to properly describe the extent of my immersion in a colorless fog. On the day Nelson Henricks’s exhibition closes, I will have had four years to familiarize myself with the way that grey is composed, inexactly and iteratively, of some basic, unalterable fact. And so, I could not seem to remain for long in front of a row of eleven greyscale variations in paint; they formed a gradient, from lightest to darkest, but called up the same void. Together, the paintings make a convincing case for mourning as a particular synesthesia, whose experience I’ll call ashen black.

Like loss, ashen black exists more as texture than color: the grit and grain of hushing un-density. Ashen black is the draw in the lee: the inward clawing of pressure after exit, as when a sudden draft pulls more breath from your chest than feels reasonable to recover. It’s close, but it isn’t the same as the color grey: grey is what happens when light scatters, glances, becomes diffuse. Ash, rather, is an incidental trace: something like color but thicker, after all its surface capacity for representation has burnt away.

Nelson Henricks’s “Lacuna (Ashes)” series, 2018. Photo: Cheryl O’Brien. Courtesy Paul Petro Contemporary Art.

Well-wishers offer metaphors as tokens to brighten grief. But metaphor is color, and next to grief, color feels like a lie: harmless, perhaps, but unequal to its goodly task. What ashen black offers is the wide yawn of colorlessness: of the non-exact but functionally identical repetition of vacant hours-turned-months in mourning.

At Paul Petro Contemporary Art, in Toronto, Henricks renders death and absence in a rich and surprisingly variegated spectrum of black and ash. It’s here that I’m both fixed and chased by the series of small, textured paintings, made with paints composed partly of ground ash. Henricks is best-known for his work in the moving image, and for the stress he puts on the periphery, the ellipses, and the narrative implications of our unstable time. Pulling much of that forward, his most recent work reads as literary, sober, and inventive.

Nelson Henricks, “Lacuna (Black Page) 8,”  2018. Courtesy Paul Petro Contemporary Art.

For this exhibition, titled Lacuna (Alas Poor Yorick!), Henricks sought out copies of Laurence Sterne’s novel Tristram Shandy (1759). The book, a farcical faux-autobiography and early experimental novel, is known for its formal play. After the woeful death of a character, Parson Yorick, Sterne presents us with a page covered in black ink on both sides. The significance of the black page has long been the subject of debate for dissertation-writers, but the exhibition’s text describes a key aspect of its ambiguity: “On one hand, the black page can be understood as an overflowing of ink and emotion representing inexpressible grief. On the other hand, it is like an image of an open grave: an opening, an absence, a void.” Henricks’s rumination on this black page emphasizes the density, the nested complexity, of representations of loss.

Nelson Henricks, “Lacuna (Ashes) 5,” 2018. Courtesy Paul Petro Contemporary Art.

From each copy, Henricks removed Tristram Shandy’s black page, and silkscreened an image of a deeper black rectangle overtop. This blacker void creates an inward pull: the show’s eponymous lacuna. With a small gesture, a rectangle within a rectangle, Henricks opens an abyss beneath Sterne’s (or, perhaps more accurately, beneath the non-identical abysses cast by various printers trying to capture Sterne’s vision of emptiness). The resulting prints meditate subtly on repetition with difference. Multiple reproductions of the same page all signify the same elemental absence textually, but render it according to a handful of contingent factors: things like paper quality, ink saturation, depth of black, and page-number positioning (a couple of editions even went so far as to omit page numbers on the black pages – for these publishers, the void of Yorick’s death is so total, it is supernumerary). The truth inheres in the simple formal premise: the repetition of days and ends after loss feels rote, inexact, dull, marked by meaningless exigencies.

Page by page, Henricks burned the remaining books, with their black pages excised. He then collected the ash, arranged them in rough, gritty rectangles over white mats, and created large-scale photo scans, resembling – of course – Tristram Shandy’s insistent hollow. Fittingly, the reproductions themselves are made of the ashes of everything but the black page. They contain the lacuna’s own absence at their center: a second-order void. Unmanageable cinder and soot occasionally spills over the edges of the mat, leaking out past the confines of the “page” they reproduce. The images’ texture also contains visible memories – fragments of text.

Henricks then mixed this ash into oil and acrylic media and created the centerpiece that so halted me: a series of differentially ashen blacks, a gradient of texture, shade, and void, varieties of compound loss and attempted recovery. As refrain, Henricks made another series of painted black pages, but with colorful borders. The color along the edges of these works comes from paint that belonged to his recently deceased mother, a landscape artist. The series will continue until her paint has been used up.

Nelson Henricks’s “Lacuna” series, 2018. Photo: Cheryl O’Brien. Courtesy Paul Petro Contemporary Art.

All of this, on paper, seems perhaps dreadfully clever. But up close there’s a sort of summative power to the variations. In front of the ash paintings I’m not as distracted as I expected to be by the persistent literary allusion (a well-thumbed copy of Tristram Shandy sits dog-eared on the gallery desk, for visitors to flip through and go “huh,” as I did). I didn’t spend much time wondering whether this is all too cunning for its own good. Sterne’s gimmick – if it is a gimmick – has been deconstructed, pulled apart, and amplified to productive absurdity by Henricks’s appropriation. What might’ve felt glib or precious reads as a warm humor balanced by a formal depth.

Underwriting the seriousness is a sense of the novel’s grim wit. The show’s tight didactic texts offer a short but definitive repository of signposts and punchline explanations. The winking Malevich reference is fun, but feels incidental. Similarly, a short note in Henricks’s text suggests Sterne’s work prefigured 20th-century monochrome fields. But haggling over chronologies of experimentation fascinates me less than the earnestness of loss on the images’ wasted surfaces.

What might easily be missed in Petro’s presentation is the guiding sense of temporality – the sequence of Henricks’s careful gestures, which unfold rather like a ritual. Fittingly, though, the ceremony itself took place without us and is not recoverable; these are merely its artifacts, its documents. Of course we weren’t there – another lacuna, a deeper recessed void, fired in. We can only know about it in absentia: rumors from the gallerist, that the artist burnt books, semi-clandestinely, in the barbeque pits of city parks. What remains is enough to track that ashen black matures, according to its own agency, and over time.

But nothing is truly lost in Henricks’s loss. Everything is somehow recovered, accounted for, repurposed. The ashes don’t go to waste, they find ever-new ways to signify the same elemental absence, the spirit of the black page. The color-trimmed lacunae will continue until all of his mother’s paint is exhausted. Any perception that might go astray is shepherded back to the orienting vertical void. And if we squint, there’s actually something rather frantic in all this self-soothing: something like a need. Perhaps I recognize a haste to ensure that the loss doesn’t exceed itself: doesn’t spread and somehow multiply the underlying emptiness.

It occurs to me now that this haste – and its clear futility – are central figures in the ashen black of grief. The repeated attempts to outline the abyss echo what it’s like to reorient meaning when your palette consists only of the shades of fog. On the day Nelson Henricks’s exhibition ends, I will have had four years of knowing what remains in absence: a substance like ash.


For Whitney.



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