Delphine Hennelly

Studio visit, November, 2017 – In collaboration with St. Charles Projects 

“Untitled” Oil on Canvas, 72 x 60 Inches,  2017

Where did you grow up?

Vancouver until the age of 12, and then my parents moved to Montreal. We moved kind of unusually because my sister was a ballet dancer and was the first to move to join Les Grands Ballets Canadiens in Montreal. She was 16 when she joined the company. She left high school so that she could be part of this company so it was one of those things were my family kind of moved all of a sudden to be near her. So I also grew up in Montreal. It’s weird because I was born in Vancouver, but I haven’t been back since I was 13. Basically what I’m trying to say is I don’t feel like I really grew up in Montreal even though I spent my high school years there. I moved to new York to go to Cooper Union when I was 20, so it was only 8 years [in Montreal] really, but that’s a long time in your youth.


What is the driving force behind your work?

Curtis Miller, A Baltimore painter who I just met yesterday, and I, were talking yesterday about addiction with painting and I think that is absolutely true. Once you get going as a painter, you get hooked. It’s really hard in the beginning because as a young person you have a murky understanding of time. When I was a young painter, I knew in theory that I wanted to be an artist. I always drew, I always wanted to make work, but I knew it would be very difficult to have the discipline or the drive. But then, something happens where you somehow do it enough times that an addiction happens. I believe that’s absolutely true. I believe you get hooked to that thrilling feeling when something succeeds after working it out like a math problem that you need to solve. And then when you solve that math problem, which can take days or years, that’s such a good feeling that you just kind of chase it all the time.


That being said, the more cerebral drive behind wanting to be a painter is more [about] having a voice. It’s like having a place where you can process all those thoughts about current affairs–at least for me. I get very overwhelmed by current affairs, issues, politics, society, etc. and I kind of map it out, process it out in my pictures. I rarely talk about politics when I talk about my paintings, but my paintings are completely about those things that are terrifying in the world that are out of your control. A piece in this show I was painting when the hurricane was happening in Puerto Rico, and that’s why it’s called Blue Storm.

“Storm” Oil on Canvas/ 72 x 60 Inches/ 2017

It goes back to the days when you’re young, and you’re anxious about something but you don’t know how to process it so you draw. It’s exactly the same thing. It may sound infantile or silly to say that as an adult, but it’s exactly the same thing. I’ve only just realized this recently. Sometimes I have to allow myself to be selfish and go the studio and paint, because it feels like a selfish act, you know? And then I think, why am I doing this? It’s a selfish, privileged position to be able to sit in my studio and just doodle or draw, and then ultimately I realize it’s [my way of] processing.


Can you talk a little bit about your process and approach to your newer paintings that often feature linear patterns and decorative elements?

The paintings I’ve been working on felt like they were getting progressively facile. I have a facility to do a quick line, and I tend to fall into that comfortably. I just too easily do it. I didn’t know how to make it interesting for myself. Going back to the idea of the math problem–if there’s not a problem, it’s boring. That’s what I mean by facile or easy. If I can do it too easily, then there is no resistance. Really boring. There’s no discovery. My paintings were beginning to be very flat that way. I felt like I was just flattening out everything.

Run Through the Fiesta
“Run Through the Fiesta” at St. Charles Projects, Oil on Canvas/ 72 x 60 Inches/ 2017

I was making these mirror motif paintings that were kind of bubbly, and I was thinking a lot about [Philip] Guston, I had just seen the Nixon drawing show at Hauser&Wirth. I love the way Guston just so easily draws a baseball bat, or a bowl of soup or a rock and then throws incongruous shadows under them. I was thinking along the lines of making “the object” a character…I was also trying to get away from figuration in a way…. I was flattening out in a posterization kind of way where you’re just bringing things down to tones. Basically, I wasn’t modelling with paint, or searching with paint. It felt too easy and I literally had to shatter that. I didn’t know consciously how. There was actually a eureka moment that happened where I was at the Met to see the Max Beckman show. On my way out I happened to walk past some tapestries–and I look at tapestries all the time. I love tapestries. It was just one of those things where I ambled on over and contemplated. I went really close and looked at how they were patched. They are often patched with a piece that completely doesn’t fit the image. There’s these moments of utter abstraction and then within that I was just able to digress into the linearity of the image in the sense that it’s all made out of threads. It’s this beautiful thing built from threads, and looking at that really closely I thought, that’s what I’ll do. I’ll just paint tapestry! The lightbulb went off.


So I basically went back and painted the same paintings. I was replacing the thread with the brush strokes. The thing that shifted it even more was that once the painting was done, it didn’t so much look like a tapestry. There isn’t the same depth, so it became more digital looking, which was a further eureka moment of wanting it digitized and broken up. The combination of all of that, for me, was really fruitful. Tapestries back in the day were this medium for communication–most tapestries told stories, not just kept you warm. When you think of our current image-liking era, it’s mostly through the digital sphere.


What is your biggest struggle in the studio?

Sometimes it’s almost impossible to be in the studio. I guess because it’s just the task at hand. One sets oneself up for it. Before I paint a painting, I literally prepare and I think…that can go on sometimes for 2 weeks. It’s almost like a little dance sometimes–and I literally do a little dance. And that sometimes can take 2 days. First I mix my colors, and then I’ll do this thing where I’m thinking about how I’m…it’s just avoidance. I don’t want to paint yet. I used to battle against it, and I don’t fight against it so much anymore because I’ve grown more mature and I understand that the osmosis period is necessary.

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Once you start criticizing yourself and being negative, you can’t get anywhere. With maturity, I’ve learned to no longer–less and less anyway, to no longer criticize myself. And to accept more. If I don’t paint for a week or two, I’m not mad at myself anymore. I understand it as a good thing. I understand it as part of the process. And oftentimes my better paintings are the ones that I’ve given the space for them to happen. I pretty much spent my entire 20s beating myself up about not working hard enough. The biggest difficulty is learning to pace yourself, and knowing how to recognize your own pace.


Do you have any routines, rituals, or coping mechanisms that you use regularly in your studio practice?

Mixing the colors is one. I will spend an entire day or two days just selecting the colors. The gessoing part–that’s the calm, meditation part. It sometimes feels like being an athlete in training. The stretching is the gessoing and the mixing. It’s a meditative state you have to get into. You get in the zone. When you’re in the moment of painting, you’re kind of empty. You’re making decisions, but you’re making them in a part of your brain where you’re not worrying about it. You’re doing them. You’re making them. You’re just rolling–when it’s going well. All the time before is when I’m really allowing myself to have anxiety and to worry, or to think of the image.

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Once I start a painting, I can’t really leave it until it’s done. There’s a certain kind of fluidity that needs to be there. It’s not like a painting that takes 2 weeks to do, although it takes 2 weeks to think about the entire thing, but the actual painting part is really fast. If they can be done in one day, I’d be happy. And sometimes they are. Like Running Through The Fiesta, was probably a day. That’s why it got so messy–I just went with it and I had to go with it. It was 1 or 2 days. Also, if things are really rough, I’ll just go home and make spaghetti … I’ll go and cook a meal–knowing when to walk away is what I’m trying to say. For me that’s often cooking or going home and being domestic.

Do you have any hobbies or interests outside of your studio practice that help keep you sane?

I’m ashamed that I really don’t. I’m obsessed with painting. I don’t have a plan B.

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 Can you talk a little bit about the work in this show for St. Charles projects. How do you see it in context with the other artists?

I knew of their work before, and had liked it also so I was thrilled to be in conversation with them on the wall. I actually had an instagram chat with Joshua about our blue paintings. He was like: “I saw your Blue!” and I was like yeah: “I saw June’s Blue!” Lol. but we also talked about how hard it is to make a really good Blue painting. I said they [blue paintings] feel creepy by nature because blue is not like nature. Blue paintings are sort of untrustworthy. And Josh said a beautiful thing: “That blue is like the superego encouraging you to use it and then laughing at you when you fail” I think the blue painting came about in some weird way because I was- and still am into this idea of doing blue paintings, because of how strange a color it is, -it has a particular light. And also the idea of an entirely blue painting intrigues me. In Blue Storm, I haven’t even gone that far, but how do you make a painting blue? Appear blue, but use other colors too?

“Storm” (left) “Run Through the Fiesta” (right)

Mars walk and Run Through the Fiesta were from earlier, But Blue Storm was brand new, and another similar to it as well, both I intended for Dominic to take. I was hoping he would. I didn’t know what he had in mind, but he asked me to do this and I painted those two specifically for something to show–something new.

The imagery I choose is…I’ve often been told my work is cryptic, or not very clear–the narrative is not very clear. But I don’t consider myself a narrative painter at all. I don’t think of narrative when I think of painting, I think more towards formalism. That being said, I’m painting this muddy water series and it’s coming out of the recent hurricanes in Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico. And then, who knows what anxiety is awaiting us in the future in terms of climate change and all that. And not to get heavy-handed–this is why I never talk about it, because I hate to say, “Climate change”–that’s what I’m painting. It just sounds ridiculous…going back to that idea of I get to be in my studio and paint pictures of it. You know what I mean? It sounds really trite, but it’s more just the response of the choices and motifs and stuff. So these walking figures Mars Walk and Run Through the Fiesta, had to do with Aleppo and the refugee imagery of people walking and also the idea of a protest march in combination with this.

It’s not a narrative, – but the figure is something I remain tied to because it’s my touchstone to a potential story. So for this show, I didn’t want to show things that were months old–I wanted something fresh and those issues were what was going on. And that blue Joshua was talking about. There’s something about blue right now that…and this show is so blue.

Delphine studio visit
Delphine and Dominic Terlizzi, director of St. Charles, in the studio

Do you think the internet is helping or hurting us as artists and people? How do you use it for your own work?

On one hand I’m thinking about it a lot, and on the other hand I don’t think about it. I accept it as my reality. It’s true–there are moments when you don’t have internet. When I am in Canada, where I am – where we’re out in the woods- there are times the internet goes out. It’s extremely frustrating and I realize how much we’re hooked to this thing. But, at the same time in terms of how I work, I feel like I’m just going with it for now. If we do lose it, permanently, which is a possibility because you never know…it absolutely is changing us as people, but that’s where I don’t think about it. I think that’s just evolution. I didn’t grow up with the internet or a cell phone, but I think about these things most particularly when it comes to my son. The amount of exposure he has to it. I often have reservations about that, but I can’t stop it. I see how much it’s about evolution. I see how much his brain works because of how much he’s been able to have access to it. He grew up with the I-pad and the I-phone at his fingertips. For better or for worse, I let him be exposed to it. I know there are some parents who hold it back, but there’s only so much you can do. I have that attitude about some things…if you can’t beat it, join it.


As an artist, I think, right now–throughout the ages, artists have been responding to the world around them with whatever technology is at their fingertips. That being said, I don’t know how many more paintings of imitation pixels I can see, because that’s getting a little tired. Referencing the pixel, the jagged edge, you know- the “staircase curve” It’s interesting to see if we can get beyond those direct puns pictorially. But painting is such a slow medium, so we’re always digesting the visual in a slower way. One artist who does it really well is E.J Hauser. She really captures yet goes beyond the pixel to make it her own mark. If anything I am completely fascinated by the digital for how we see through it.

Is there anything you would like to promote? Upcoming exhibitions, projects, passions?

I’ll be in the next New American Paintings magazine, North East. It should be out in December and I’m really excited to see who else is in it.

Pre-Verse is a group show at St. Charles Projects  featuring Delphine Hennelly, June Culp, and Joshua Bienko, on view November 4, 2017 – January 13, 2018

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Special thanks to Dominic Terlizzi and Thomas Beatty

Inertia Studio Visits

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