The Legacy of Cham Hendon and his “Dumb Paintings”
“Dumb” and “bad” aren’t adjectives you’d imagine an artist would embrace in relation to their work. But then, the late artist Cham Hendon (née Robert Chambless Hendon) wasn’t your conventional painter. Hendon, who passed away on January 11, 2014, at the age of 78, developed a unique mixing and pouring process to create his psychedelically colored works, which he dubbed “dumb paintings.” Based on kitsch imagery drawn from television advertising and calendars, these works attracted the attention of Marcia Tucker, the founding director and curator at New York’s New Museum, who included Hendon in her groundbreaking 1978 exhibition, “Bad Painting.” The exhibition celebrated work that defied “the classic canons of good taste, draftsmanship, acceptable source material, rendering, or illusionistic representation,” wrote Tucker in a curatorial essay, perhaps laying the groundwork for the opening, in 1994, of the Museum of Bad Art. While Hendon drew heavily from Pop Art, borrowing techniques from paint-by-numbers kits and imagery from motel room postcards, his work is far removed from the relatively clean forms and graphic designs of Warhol or Lichtenstein. Instead he painted dense, swirling images of mundane interior scenes, landscapes, animals, and architecture, in lurid, contrasting colors. Hendon would begin by sketching out the lines of a drawing before laying his canvas flat and pouring a mixture of acrylic and Rhoplex over it from plastic beakers, creating a metallic, marbleized effect. After completing his painting in a finite period of time, he baked it for 48 hours under 250-watt lamps to fix its surface.
Tucker described the “bad” painters as grounded in “the tradition of iconoclasm,” and Hendon’s compositions are indeed marked by their irreverence toward conventional notions of good taste, but they also express a Fauvist-style celebration of color and pattern. Whether taking as his subject matter well known monuments—the Supreme Court building or the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.—motel interiors, or iconic figures from art history, Hendon leaves behind a body of work that is consistently mesmerizing. His garish use of color and raw style might read bad art, but you may find yourself unable to look away, seduced by his intricate, bedazzling surfaces.