Texas Prize: Will Henry

Peter Smith
July 18, 2012

Will Henry’s exhibition at AMOA-Arthouse at the Jones Center is a series of paintings that incorporates cultural signposts into West Texas landscapes. Addressing the commercialization of West Texas, Henry’s show probes the negative implications of the art world’s colonization of otherwise-impoverished Marfa. But while some of the paintings are captivating, the exhibition does not live up to its potential. Henry bases his work too deeply within his criticism of the gentrification of Marfa as well as its idolization of Donald Judd; as a result, his paintings suffer in conceptual depth.

Will Henry, Giant, 2011; oil on canvas, 30 x 72"; photograph by Eric Hester; image courtesy the artist.

Henry’s most engaging paintings are The Man Who Fell to Earth and Giant, which together form the basis for Henry's exhibition. Both paintings take cues from a 1956 George Stevens film, titled Giant, filmed just down the road from Marfa.

The Man Who Fell to Earth captures the facade of the iconic mansion featured in Stevens’ Giant, a jarring reminder of the brevity of glory and fame. In the distance Henry painted the Hollywood Hills superimposed onto Marfa's mountainous horizon with "JUDD" spread over them in the same manner as the iconic HOLLYWOOD sign atop the hills. Juxtaposing the glamorous pathos of Hollywood with a monument for a darling of the contemporary art world, Henry suggests that the art world is just like Hollywood, and critiques its takeover of the Marfan community. Henry points to the glitterati’s hubris, a point strengthened by his choice in title, which he borrowed from Nicholas Roeg's 1976 film. No matter how big a man is, he remains a man, and falls to earth.

Henry’s other strong painting, Giant, connects with The Man Who Fell to Earth (the painting, not the film). Henry’s Giant offers a rear view of the Judd Hills sign marring a pristine sunset, as though the painter traveled to West Texas only to find the territory already marked. That Henry uses Donald Judd—or rather “JUDD”—is no casual satire or name-drop. Rather it is both a searing attack on the art world’s self-importance and a critique of Judd’s supposed originality. When Judd arrived in Marfa, the territory was in fact already marked by Hollywood.

Installation view of Will Henry's paintings at AMOA - Arthouse at the Jones Center; Texas Prize exhibition, 2012; image courtesy AMOA - Arthouse.

While Henry’s complaints about Marfa’s social and cultural shifts over the past years have merit, he makes them hard to sympathize with. The extremity of Henry’s argument detracts from its potency. Attaching the entire art industry in Marfa to Judd and Judd to Hollywood, Henry overplays his hand. His show lacks nuance.

His exhibition as a whole does not maintain the focus established by its best paintings, though he never strays far from his criticism of the monopolization of Marfa. Henry seems to run out of commentary before running out of gallery space and fills the void with a sampling of slightly surreal landscape and still life paintings, weakening his overall argument. The conflation of Hollywood and the art world is apt and his focus on the upper class repossession of Marfa is well-taken, but these claims seem superficial and poorly-considered. Bringing Judd under fire while only focusing on the circumstances surrounding Judd’s work, Henry imputes bad motives to Judd, something that Henry can only speculate about. It’s unlikely that Judd moved to Marfa in the 1970s with the intention of turning the area into a Club Med for the art mob. That’s perhaps something that Henry didn’t intend to suggest, but does anyway in his failure to address the complexity of what has happened in Marfa. The simplistic extremity of Henry’s critique deflates his argument and robs it of significance.

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