Power Exhibited Through Sexualized Desire: Julie Henson Interviewed

Julie Henson, Character Studies, 2021. Installation view. Courtesy of BICA and the artist.

Los Angeles-based multimedia artist Julie Henson uses costume fabric, sequins, and an acute attention to scale to dig into the idea of feminine power and the hyper-performative aspects of celebrity worship and cult-like fandom. Her current  show, Character Studies at BICA in Buffalo, New York, brings a very LA subject—the power of the image—and fractures it into aggressive and dazzling image-based sculptures. In Henson’s world, the theatrical fourth wall is the screen, the sequined division between realms that lifts under Henson’s gentle scrutiny. I first met Henson while I was doing a studio visit with her suite mate, artist Jake Ziemann, and I was instantly dazzled. I’ve been watching her vision develop since like an eager fan. We corresponded via iMessage for a few weeks in October 2021, while she installed her show at BICA, sharing installation shots and savoring that liminal space that exists in the time between putting an exhibition together, installing it, and then opening it to the public; that quick exhilarating moment right before the curtains lift. —Angella d’Avignon

Angella d’Avignon: Last time we saw each other we were waiting to see how the world would respond to Covid-19…as big as this question feels, what’s new with your work since then? 

Julie Henson: That is a big question! I actually became interested in celebrities and their fan bases through research on televangelists. I grew up in a religious family that attended a megachurch, so much of my work stems from that experience. I’m interested in the construction of ecstatic experiences, so everything from the spotlights and smoke machines to theatrical skits find a way into my work. But at the center of my interest in celebrities like Dolly Parton and televangelists like Tammy Faye Bakker (who also appears in some of my earlier projects) is how constructed their public personas are and how their fan bases emulate them.

Julie Henson, Flipping Inside Out, 2021. Inkjet print on aluminum, spray paint, jewelry chain, charms.
38 1/3 x 52 1/4 inches. Courtesy of BICA and the artist.

Ad: Let’s talk about the specific images you use in your work. I also grew up in a mega church where services were not unlike light shows or concerts. My first memories of my mother are of her in costume (she was a singer/performer). I was especially fascinated by her fake eyelashes and examining her face with all that makeup on it. The visual (and dare I say spiritual? or ritual magic through dress?!) gaps between identities were stunning: her as my mom at home and this otherworldly woman on stage. I’m trying to draw some sort of connection between you selecting your images and how they transform with your presentation in a similar way…How do you select which images and which celebrities you want to explore? And how do you choose which elements to focus on?

JH: That’s exactly the space that fascinates me (between your mom on stage and off). I choose celebrities often based on how much of a cult-like following they have. Basically, I start with a performer that we, as a society or fan base, have placed a lot of our shared beliefs on. For example, Dolly Parton has different significance to different groups of people: an emblem of the American rags-to-riches story but also a drag icon. That perception is built through the way they present themselves to the public—how they want us to see them. So to me, their (often extreme, powerful, aggressive) image is the medium they use to communicate these ideas. 

Julie Henson, Blurring Fantasy and Reality, 2021. Inkjet print on aluminum, spray paint. 24 3/4 x 45 inches. Courtesy of BICA and the artist.

Ad: How does your visual editing process factor in here? Why do you hyperfocus on certain body parts?

JH: The cropping of the celebrity’s image is designed to isolate and distill the elements of presentation and adornment employed in the construction of the persona. For someone like Dolly Parton, her body is extreme—especially her torso. Isolating this constructed feature allows someone to see how she presents herself rather than to see her whole identity. Does that make sense?! Or am I just in my own head here? 

Ad: It reminds me of a pop psychology take on body language, which I’ve always paid attention to…there’s some meaning in the way people stand and how they posture their bodies. It’s so important in communication but we rarely discuss it unless it’s like…art history or celebrity gossip, I guess? We’ll hyperscrutinize a hand touch between two semi-famous people but will fail to understand how we may come across to the people around us. How do you strike a balance between deconstructing the images of these power icons and something more sinister like say, disembodiment or anthropological arrangement? 

Also, none of these images are especially overwhelming or maximalist or compositionally dense in any way—especially in contrast to the force of personality and the cult following behind it. It’s almost like it slows the image down somehow. I keep thinking about Billie Eilish and JojoSiwa, and their chaotic energy versus the paired-down silence of your work when it’s installed in a room. They’re like a concert or a theater venue before the show starts…

JH: It’s interesting that you say that because the initial impulse was that: to slow down the viewer’s reading of the information in the image. Our ability to understand images is so quick that we interpret information without ever fully considering it. The goal of removing (visual)information was to drive someone to think about what is absent. That’s why I often show the image-based sculptures alongside material-forward sculptures. The chaotic, maximalist, overwhelming, and often surreal nature of those works are meant to capture that dense and mesmerizing nature but separate it from the image itself. Both types of work complement each other in my mind. The goal is for them to work together to bring forward the difference between image and reality (for lack of a better word). Maybe I actually mean “physicality” here, as the disembodiment of the subjects of the work are physical but still detached from reality. 

Ad: They almost create their own reality…but where is that exactly? Is there a threshold space in art as much as there is in performance or cultural rituals? 

JH: I think of that space—the environment that I often create as an installation—as a stage-like place where we (as the audience, fan base, congregation) can suspend disbelief and engage physically in this constructed world rather than watch from the outside. We are comfortable seeing ourselves in relation (or opposition) to celebrity, but that relationship still impacts how we form our own identity and public persona. We construct ourselves in the same ways we’ve learned by watching, engaging, and ingesting all types of media.

Julie Henson, It Wasn’t Reality Anymore, 2021
Inkjet print on aluminum, spray paint, charms
13 3/4 x 18 inches. Courtesy of BICA and the artist.

Ad: Speaking of the threshold, let’s talk about cult aesthetics’ relationship to the spectacle (à la Guy DeBord)—how does fandom and posturing figure into the images you choose to focus on? I’m thinking specifically about those talon-like nails…

JH: I’ve been interested in the way that celebrities use aggressive posturing and adornment for a while. I came to it through my last body of work that was focused on the visualization of power in media and advertising images, which brought me to this [current] body of work as I began exploring how women have used their bodies to exert power. 

I’m fascinated by how the body, along with aggressive and excessive adornments, can be used to convey power and desire. Elongated nails, gem encrusted body armor, scale-like sequins, sharp jewelry—these adornments draw on the image of royalty, military, and even a sense of otherworldliness. It seems that these are tools to create distance between the celebrity and the fan, while also building a sense of reverence and idolization.

Ad: Power and desire are a potent combo. Power distance could be described as the space between a superfan and the object of their aspiration…I’m curious what you think about aggression and femininity, how those two line up in your work. 

JH: Aggression is often seen as a positive masculine trait and negative feminine trait, so I try to focus on femme characters that “behave badly.” My interest in aggression—a mix of power and desire—is designed to place the viewer in a cycle of repulsion and attraction.  

Ad: The cycle of repulsion and attraction is real here…for example, I’m mesmerized by that mountain of wig hair. How long have you been working on that?

JH: It’s been in the works for several months and it has definitely taken on a life of its own! 

Ad: Tell me more!

Julie Henson, Character Studies, 2021. Installation view. Courtesy of BICA and the artist.

JH: Well, I began working on it with the reference of a theatrical backdrop in mind and, as I built it, I kept pushing it towards something more surreal and architectural. I like that it reads as a singular body and a multitude of bodies simultaneously, and spatially can feel overwhelming. 

Ad: This takes us back to cult aesthetics and spectacle—the mass and density of it makes it somewhat intimidating, like a sea of people, but the colors and material (the fact that the viewer could ostensibly tell that it’s more or less a “pile” of wigs) makes it more inviting but disgusting at the same time? Like a McDonald’s ball pit, ha! I’m thinking too about concert crowds and tragedies or riots…the power of a crowd. In trying to name the magic, it almost becomes more slippery. 

JH: ​​Yes, exactly. That dichotomy of joy and fear that you can feel in large groups of people is definitely present in that sculpture. It can be both magical and overwhelming. Similarly, Cameras Don’t Lie (year?) was made searching for the same unsettling feeling. I have been thinking a lot about the ways that COVID accelerated social media’s power over our perception of self and our public personas. That relationship between celebrity and fan has been designed to feel so much more intimate through those platforms. 

Ad: How did Cameras Don’t Lie develop? And what’s being projected onto the sequined curtain? 

JH: The video was created from clips of a variety of celebrities and influencers, edited to heighten the frenetic movement and speed that we ingest this type of content. The projection onto sequins allows the content to be more textural rather than narrative, as the sequin screen fractures the image and is so reflective that it can be hard to look at directly. In many ways it functions like stage costuming, designed to attract and mesmerize viewers while also concealing reality. Needless to say, social media is also using the captivating nature of video to transfix us, influencing our belief systems, our self esteem, and our levels of anxiety. 

Julie Henson, Cameras Do Lie, 2021. Video projection on sequin screen
dimensions variable. Courtesy of BICA and the artist.

Ad: Maybe this is TMI but I got really into sexting during the pandemic and even though I studied gender in school and consider myself a staunch feminist, I was shocked at how pleasing and empowering it was to control and manage my own image, especially in a sexualized context. How much does sexuality figure into your work?

JH: Ha, honestly, I love that! And a great question. I’m fascinated by the way that femme people can, and do, reclaim power through their image. One of the most common ways to exhibit power over patriarchal structures has been through the ownership of their bodies, and that comes into play with how they exhibit desire through their image. I often remove the identity of the performer because I want to draw attention to the universal ways that we exhibit and respond to femme power through sexualized desire (which is obviously very different to how we respond to visualized masculine power). 

I think a lot about how this can be a double-edged sword: like the extensive media criticism of celebrities’ bodies and the ways we augment our bodies in response, or the complicated relationship between content creators and fans on sites like OnlyFans. Many of the celebrities I’m interested in take sexuality to very performative, absurd, and sometimes even grotesque places, heightening our interest in seeing—watching—power exhibited through sexualized desire.  

Ad: “Watching power exhibited through sexualized desire—it’s almost as if the pop cultural ideal is now our collective Platonic ideal but constantly changing to a pace that no one but the super wealthy could keep up with. This body of work (pun intended!) seems to encapsulate idol-worship in its most ominous and titillating. Is pop culture insidious because of our Puritanical beliefs or is it truly evil?

JH: Oh man, that’s an interesting thought. I actually don’t think of pop culture as evil or insidious on its own, but I see it as a mirror of our collective values brought to the extreme as a method of capturing our attention. Humans love an idol, in any form. However, I think we (er, humans) are prone to using idols to simplify and narrow our thinking. For me, contemporary pop culture is pushing us to appreciate power exhibited by people that have traditionally been excluded from those positions. Personally, I think that’s amazing. But, I do think we still run the risk of using celebrities as emblems of our beliefs and expect them to hold up to the scrutiny and pressure of the standards we create for them. We want to fantasize about them and consume them. What we don’t want to do is to reflect on our actions or analyze our own beliefs. I mean, #FreeBritney!

Ad: Yes! #FreeBritney!

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