For her first exhibition in Los Angeles, Hennelly continues her work in allegorical painting, presenting two, large scale works in oil featuring figures in the tradition of the Late Middle Age genre the danse macabre. Traditionally, images of the danse macabre or Death Dance combined both desire for penance, so that one might transcend death in the afterlife, and the desire for entertainment, to cope with death’s looming inevitability. Though Hennelly’s Maiden acknowledges Death, in her eponymous work, the tilt of the figure’s head and her ability to look in two places at once, is also a demure glance over the shoulder spurring Death on. In the midst of disrobing and sliding behind the Maiden, Death becomes a provocation. The Maiden’s look portends the moment she turns back, catching sight of the hourglass dangling before her, that Death would use her momentary affront to close the gap between her and its similarly dangling pelvic bone.
More than its holy predecessors, Hennelly’s rendition of the danse macabre better aligns with Hans Holbein the Younger’s The Dance of Death, a series of satirical woodcuts wherein everyday village people, in spite of being visited by Death, attempt to carry on with their humdrum lives while the specter playfully tugs at their shirtsleeves. Hennelly envisions a more modern figure titillated by Death’s advance, far enough ahead to see it coming in her mirror and to toy with it in the process.
The artist’s Death & Maiden II stands on the technical side of the Holbein woodcuts as a painting in chiseled relief. Hennelly uses a new brushwork technique of cross-hatching with vivid colors on top of hard-edged contour lines. The result is an abrasive line quality suggestive of the wood carvers tool marks and the psychological violence visited upon the figure who’s mortal window is forever slowly closing.
Ruminations on the brevity and fleetingness of life are also the preoccupation of JD Olerud’s work on view in the exhibition. Moving away from an ongoing series of ornate floral compositions painted on linen over panel, Olerud isolates enlarged insects in fields of black or white, calling attention both to how mammalian they appear at scale, and to their identity in the animal kingdom. Insects are the vehicle by which the world digests its dead. They consume death in order to live. Their persistence is an instantiation of collective loss. This transmutation is not without irony. Long-time harbingers of death and disease, not least because the job of breaking down decomposing matter means that insects are in constant contact with pathogens, insects are an organized corps of accidental pollinators, ecologically indispensable to the maturation of plant life at the bedrock of the global energy web.
Olerud’s painting process for his larger works, She’s Spinning and The Prey, involve several layers of underpainting and applications of gold leaf that are sanded down and painted over, not unlike the recycling efforts of bugs. The result is of shimmering, translucent subjects which are then fixed in place by monochromatic grounds. Successive applications of gold leaf on the surface of the works evoke the iridescence and patterning with which insects communicate and situates them in a floating, celestial space.
The third stanza of William Blake’s late 18th century poem on the transience of life, The Fly, reads “For I dance and drink & sing; Till some blind hand shall brush my wing.” An early version of the poem was accompanied by an illustration in the middle ground of which a small girl is in the midst of serving a shuttlecock aloft while her mother and younger brother dance in the fore. The “blind hand” in the stanza is interpreted to be the girl’s own; the “wing”, the shuttlecock; and the inevitable point of contact, the death of the fly who stands in for the narrator. For Pretty as she goes, JD Olerud gives us the fly, claiming its space and cavorting unaware of its brief stay on earth. Delphine Hennelly makes the girl’s racket into the Maiden’s mirror, swatting the image of Death away so as to carry on living.