Hammer Projects: Simon Henwood

Hammer Projects: Simon Henwood

British artist and filmmaker Simon Henwood exhibits a new 3-D computer-animated video entitled Johnny Pumpkin in the Museum's Lobby Gallery.

Hammer Projects: Simon Henwood. Installation view at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. October 4, 2000-January 7, 2001. Photo by Joshua White.

Biography

Simon Henwood was born in 1965 in Portsmouth, England. In 1986 he received his B.A. from Exeter College in Devon, England. His work has been shown recently at Asprey Jacques in London and Richard Heller Gallery in Santa Monica. He is the publisher and creator of two magazines, Alice and Purr, and has written and illustrated more than a dozen children's books, including the critically acclaimed A Piece of Luck (1990) and The Troubled Village (1991). Currently, his animated series Johnny Pumpkin is in development with Sky One television in the United Kingdom. He is represented by Mary Barone in London and Richard Heller Gallery in Los Angeles.

Essay

By Raphael Rubinstein

The most obvious thread running through Simon Henwood's wide range of creative endeavors is his interest in childhood adolescence. Over the last dozen years, he has moved among different mediums and shifting forms of diffusion, Henwood has remained focused on youth, its experiences and consequences. Take, for instance, his gouache portraits, which have been shown recently at the ICA in London, Browyn Keenan Gallery in New York, and Richard Heller Gallery in Santa Monica. These large, generally close-up views, which look to have been painted partly with nail polish, show mostly boys and girls in early adolescence. Their faces range from pustulant and wary (Daniel Age 14 Manchester) to the observant and vulnerable (Sophie Age 14 London) to the rambunctious (Joey Age 14 Las Vegas). It seems no accident that the figures' ages are specified in the titles of the paintings. Those numbers not only tell us that Henwood is acutely conscious of how old his subjects are but also remind us of the utter distinctiveness of each year of teenage development (think how little sense it would make to give the specific age of sitters in their thirties or forties). What's also striking about these portraits is how straightforward they are, not only in their style, which updates the posterlike brightness of Alex Katz's paintings with photographic detail and emotional nuance, but also in their obvious concern with capturing an individual face and personality. Paying more attention to the identities of his subjects than to what they might represent, Henwood doesn't submit these teenagers to any obvious artistic editorializing, nor does he seek to subsume their individuality into a world of media constructs.

Henwood has been exploring the nonadult world since the late 1980s, when he authored a series of children's books that were issued by the prestigious New York publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Typical of these is A Piece of Luck (1990), an economically conveyed, visually dynamic parable of a man who is defeated by his own greed. The projects Henwood next undertook were less conventional. In 1993 he launched an illustrated periodical called Purr, which included contributions from figures such as erotic photographer Richard Kern and underground musician/author Henry Rollins. That year he founded a record label that issued recordings by musicians such as Sonic Youth and Iggy Pop, and he produced and directed Alice, a short film with a score by British punk-pioneer-turned-film-score-composer Barry Adamson. Since then Henwood has started a magazine (also named Alice) that chronicles how childhood is represented in art and the media and has become a publisher of artist's books and an occasional exhibition curator. He's even turned his hand to designing wallpaper. For the last several years he has also been working intensively (as creator, coproducer, and cowriter) on the project that is the focus of this exhibition, the animated film Johnny Pumpkin.

 

In the tradition of George Orwell's 1984 and Terry Gilliam's film Brazil, Johnny Pumpkin depicts a future gone awry, a dystopia that bears an uncomfortable resemblance to the world in which we live today. The tale being told, via lightening-quick graphics, is a dark one of capitalist exploitation, environmental disaster, and rampant fear, in which a gang of misfit kids battle an evil tycoon bent on world domination. Henwood brings new life, and biting humor, to this familiar scenario through his gift for creating striking characters and placing them within a world that is fully imagined and deeply bizarre. His marvelously strange inventions, such as the galloping "draffes" that can be turned inside out, effectively capture children's zany conceptual capabilities and their sometimes not-so-latent cruelty. Also enriching this singular cartoon are the subtle cultural references woven into the narrative. These range from the characters' carefully calibrated English and American accents to the allusions to low-budget monster films, a snippet of music lifted from Japanese cult faves Pizzicato Five, and visual echoes of British pop artists like Peter Blake and Patrick Caulfield. One of the interesting issues raised by much of Henwood's work, and by Johnny Pumpkin in particular, is that of audience. While adolescence is a frequent theme in contemporary art - from Rineke Dijkstra's photos of awkward kids at the beach to Amy Adler's portraits of herself as a troubled teen to Takashi Murakami's anime- and manga-inspired sculptures and paintings - little of this work has been targeted to adolescents themselves. It is, rather, aimed at the adults who frequent art galleries, visit museums, and read art magazines. As engaged as they might be by the subject of adolescence, the artists in question apparently have little interest in communicating through their work with the subjects of that work. From his early children's books to Johnny Pumpkin, Henwood, by contrast, has proven his desire to establish a dialogue with a nonadult audience.

Critic Christian Haye has taken this artist's multifarious activities as evidence that our society is "quickly approaching that blissfully egalitarian moment when the mixture of culture and commerce isn't an indicator of compromise."1 Another way of understanding Henwood's wide-ranging entrepreneurial energy might be as a continuation of the child's unbridled enthusiasm, a refusal to adopt the single-mindedness we take to be the sign of the responsible adult.

Some have speculated that contemporary society is obsessed with children because, in the words of Harvard's Kiku Adatto, "all the barriers between childhood and adulthood are breaking down, and we're really unsure where this leads."2 Are we, in fact, witnessing the rollback of the "invention of childhood" that accompanied the Enlightenment? Certainly—to cite a few striking developments—images of children in advertising and popular culture are becoming increasingly sexualized, and there is pressure on the U.S. justice system to prosecute minors who commit serious crimes (itself a growing problem) as adults. Simultaneously we hear reports of a rise in the early onset of puberty and menstruation, and we see schoolchildren subjected to mounting academic pressure and technological training at ever-younger ages. Henwood's work is fully cognizant of the anxiety and exploitation that currently surround childhood. At the same time, he reminds us that, even in a media-saturated society, even if the old myth of innocence has collapsed, childhood should remain a subject for celebration, not least because of its ability to function as a round-the-clock factory for imagination.

Notes
1. Christian Haye, "Simon Henwood," in White Kitten, ed. Mary Barone (London: Arts & Commerce, 2000), unpaginated.
2. Peter Applebome, "No Room for Children in a World of Little Adults," New York Times, 10 May 1998, Week in Review section.

Raphael Rubinstein is a senior editor at Art in America. 

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Hammer Projects are made possible by the Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation and The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts. Additional support is provided by the Los Angeles County Arts Commission and Peter Norton Family Foundation.