As a child in Staffordshire, UK, Patrick Henigan used to draw on a whitewashed wall from his bed, stretching up as far as he could reach. When every space was covered, his mother would whitewash the wall afresh. This allowed ‘Paddy’ to begin again.
This personal history, the layers of whitewash and echoes of past line work is apparent in Henigan’s Stations of the Cross, a series of fourteen ink and gesso paintings on paper. Confined to a palette of black and white, these vigorous works invite an awareness of surface and detail. The evolution of each Station is revealed through the mechanics of Henigan’s mark making.
‘I’m really about marks. How one mark responds to another. And it’s really about gestures.‘ This improvisational spirit gives the impression that each work has been made in one quick session. In fact, Henigan has been working and re-working his Stations of the Cross for many years.
‘I did the Stations of the Cross about twelve years ago. I was looking for a theme. I always work in series. I started one painting, then another. It’s as simple as that. Most of this series has been painted over those earlier images, but not all of them. I hadn’t used a brush before and I had no idea what I was trying to do. I was working spontaneously from my inside. Making the gestures to express my feelings.’
Over the past couple of years Henigan has been very much about space and paring things down to what is absolutely necessary. He applies this to his advantage with a very personal interpretation of each incident that took place on Christ’s route to Calvary. The use of gesso purifies and simplifies the composition, enhancing the contemplative experience at each Station.
‘There was something that started me off, and that was a cow or bull. I started getting the gesso and almost at random, blocking out areas in an intuitive way to see if I could break the image. To see if I could take it further.’
Patrick is referring to Jesus Carries the Cross (Beast of Burden) one of the original paintings in the series from twelve years ago. Here Henigan has taken a bold step, depicting Christ as an anthropomorphic representation of a bull with a human face. Brisk gesso marks convey an expression of kindness and humility. Henigan’s Christ is a beast of burden, laden with the faults and failings of all mankind. This is a noisy work. Emotions are raging along the route to Calvary and you can hear them, indeed feel them, in the tangle of marks that encumber Christ’s body. A group of figures crowd the bowels of Henigan’s bull. Are they spectators, theists or parasites? Speculation informs an interpretation of this Station, but it also reveals something about the viewer.
‘I think vulnerability is very important to me.’ The susceptibility to physical and emotional injury is beautifully realised in Station 2: Jesus is Condemned. Two figures face one another across a white space. The figure on the right is the Roman Governor, Pilate, a cunning tactician who manipulated the crowd to condemn Christ to death. Henigan has muddied and darkened his palette for Pilate, asserting his presence with a coarse heavy outline. The figure looms large in the space, pumped up like a thug on steroids.
Henigan was so alarmed by his depiction of Pilate that he couldn’t complete the painting for another couple of years. When he finally revisited the work, he picked up a fine brush. ‘Working spontaneously from my inside’, Christ suddenly emerged out of the vast thick white.
In contrast to his aggressive treatment of Pilate, here Henigan’s touch is tender. Using only a few delicate lines, Christ inhabits the space almost temporarily. An arm finishes at the wrist. The absence of a healing hand is both poignant and powerful. And to remind us that ‘imperfection is absolutely necessary,’ Henigan gives Christ a bulbous nose. The strong jaw conveys Christ’s resolve to remain silent to Pilate’s questioning and the crowd’s accusations. But there’s also a sensual presence in Henigan’s depiction of Christ. It’s there in the nape of the neck and the low sweep of the loincloth. Christ appears exposed and vulnerable.
‘I’m not really a renegade Christian, but I’m
the sort of person who doesn’t go for sweetness and light, for piety.
What I believe in, is something much darker, much more basic.’
As with the other paintings in the series, Henigan’s Stations of the Cross urge us to pause and reflect on the complexities and contradictions that make us human and mortal.