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Artist Michael Henley talks about his unsettling end at The Smallest Gallery in Soho

Image: 'Descended - an unsettling end' by Michael Henley at The Smallest Gallery in Soho. Photo by Philip Levine.

Michael Henley is a London based artist who uses ink, graphite and light in his work to dramatic effect, depicting organic forms while at the same time exploring the duality of artistic process. His most recent installation is being shown at the Smallest Gallery in Soho and is titled Descended – an unsettling end. The shop front will display a large monochromatic work inspired by the Baroque and, in particular, Vanitas artworks: still lives containing symbolic objects designed to remind viewers of the brevity of life. We asked Michael to talk to us ahead of the show about the sweet and sour balance of morbidity and positivity in life, as well as in art.

Eli Goldstone: Tell us about your new work Descended - an unsettling end at the Smallest Gallery in Soho.

Michael Henley: At its core it’s a site specific installation comprising of graphite drawings on tracing paper, these are then presented as a kind of ‘forest’ each with an imbedded light source to extenuate the details and layering of each piece individually and as a whole.
As well as a part of an ongoing avenue of interest for me, specifically my interest in the natural world and humankind’s relationships to it, by using the stripped back skeletal human form juxtaposed against the alive (and dead?) animals I hope to highlight our ever increasing lack of respect for this world. Along with these ideas I also strive to keep the concept aligned with the production. My work is born from the aspect of production and with this in mind I’m aiming to present something that is both beautifully made as well as expressing my ideas and perhaps igniting a conversation in the viewer, but I’ll have to wait and see if this is the case!

Eli: In traditional vanitas there is the presence of death, but being reminded of our inevitable mortality can trigger feelings of both futility and celebration — how do you feel about the effect your art has on the viewer?

As mentioned I hope this piece in particular sparks a conversation perhaps about the context of the work and it’s relationship to mortality (themes of life and death come up regularly when viewers encounter my work) but I hope more along the lines of celebration. I’ve found the my exploration of the Vanitas movement to be, not only an illustration of our mortality but a reminder to celebrate life and it’s opportunities as you go. Perhaps this work will inspire that element of the conversation, perhaps not!

Image: 'Descended - an unsettling end' by Michael Henley at The Smallest Gallery in Soho. Photo by Philip Levine.

Eli: I was a teenage goth and I’m still drawn to melancholic art. Have you always had a morbid sensibility?

Teenage goth was also one of my phases so I can relate to that, along with the undeniable vein of melancholy and morbidity that is present in my work. That being said, I would actually consider myself just as much of a positive person so I think the work reflects the duality of these moods. Let’s just say I don’t think exclusively on morbid thoughts when I’m creating!

Eli: How do you utilise light (and shadow) as a medium in your work?

Both light and shadow are huge parts of my works currently, this has been something I’ve been experimenting with for a few years now. I’ve found that combining the right layers of ink painting and graphite drawing with a light source (either natural or artificial) produced a result that is always so much more interesting then I expect! I feel I’m just at the start of really experimenting with these combinations of mediums and I’m excited to see where it will take me in the future!

Eli: In what way does this work signify a change in your practice?

So actually this is a pretty big step for me, it’s my largest site specific installation to date! Although this is a continuation of an installation for a solo exhibition (in 2021) these pieces are the culmination of a lot of preparation and experimentation to create what will hopefully be a piece that will not only utilise the space but also transform it into something that will immerse the viewer completely!

Eli: Memento mori work admonishes the viewer for wasting their time on earth. What do you think makes for a life well lived?

Honestly I feel woefully under qualified to answer this one, but from my perspective it’s about striking a balance between finding what’s best for you and the others around you. I try to follow my passions as much as I can (and creating art is a huge part of that) but I do try to be conscious of my loved ones. I think if you can find that balance that’s a good place to start.

Eli: What’s the most colourful thing about you?

I have been blessed/cursed with tremendously ginger hair, so that!

Eli: What song do you want played at your funeral?

Honestly, I couldn’t even begin to decide. I’ll leave that to whoever’s around after I’m gone!

Michael Henley: 'Descended - an unsettling end'
The Smallest Gallery in Soho
62 Dean Street, Soho, London, W1D 4QF
February – 29 April 2022

Michael Henley | @michaelhenleyart | Instagram | Twitter

'Descended - an unsettling end' was curated by Smallest Gallery in Soho.

About the Smallest Gallery in Soho Curators, Philip Levine and Andreia Costa:
Philip Levine
Philip has been working in the creative and cultural industries for the last decade as a producer. This has ranged from exhibitions, events, publishing, talks and creating his own unique artwork under the title ‘Headism’. He has gained a MA in Culture, Policy and Management at City, University of London. Being from London, his passion is knowing ‘who and what’ is up and coming in cultural trends and being involved within them. Read the Run-Riot interview with Philip Levine, here.

Andreia Costa
Andreia is an Associate Architect at Jamie Fobert Architects. She studied in the Faculty of Architecture at the University of Porto and practiced for 3 years in her native Portugal. Before moving to the UK Andreia decided to explore her contemporary art interest by working in Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art as an architecture and art lecturer. In 2010 she joined Jamie Fobert Architects, where she has been involved in several projects including Selfridges and Tate exhibitions.

Image: 'Descended - an unsettling end' by Michael Henley at The Smallest Gallery in Soho. Photo by Philip Levine.

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