Delphine Hennelly doesn’t shy away from colour, and just because she’s interested in the formality of painting doesn’t mean her paintings are stiff. Explaining her process in detail, Delphine delves deep into illusions, figuration and brushwork like a true artist. But these days, artists can no longer rely solely on the power of their work; the digital world is all about self-promotion. But Delphine doesn’t mind, she embraces Instagram and phones… hell, she even uses her phone to help her paint!
So, Delphine, we’d love to know a bit about you – as both a painter and a person. Where did you grow up, and what led you to become the artist you are today?
I grew up in Vancouver, but when I was thirteen, the family moved across the country to Montreal – so I started my first year of high school in this new city, and in a new language: French. Being that it was such a pivotal stage in my life, I think this move became the catalyst for becoming an artist. The trauma of leaving behind a familiar life and having to navigate a new culture and language allowed me to disengage from any idea of stability or desire for stability.
A big part of becoming an artist, I believe, is learning to be fearless – this experience toughened me up and made me more independent. I also grew up in an artistic family; my parents ran a theatre company in Vancouver. My dad was the director and an actor; my mum was the set and costume designer. I loved watching her draw the designs. I was also drawing all the time – most of my games as a child involved some form of drawing.
As I understand it, you’re heavily affected by current affairs and politics, and a lot of your work is made in response to international news. Does this mean that many of your paintings have deeper, darker meanings or aspects to them?
I wouldn’t say I was ‘heavily’ involved in current affairs and politics. I certainly don’t go out of my way to be involved, and honestly, will not be very forthcoming on what my political stance may or may not be. I prefer to listen and observe than to engage in dialogue on current affairs. But I am ‘affected’ – you cannot help it, as we reflect the times we live in. It’s important to be listening to the world around you at all times and be receptive to it. I always have my radar up, and in turn, this enters the work, often in a way that is intuitive. Whether or not this entails a ‘deeper, darker meaning’, I don’t know. I do follow a path of intuitive decision making when painting, which comes with its own logic.
The decorative elements of your pieces seem both modern and old-worldly but done in a way that I’ve never seen before. To me, it’s a real blend of Renaissance, ‘50s nursery rhyme illustrations and a touch of fauvism. What/whom would you say are your three biggest aesthetic influences?
Well, I have definitely been influenced by or interested in all of the above at various points! My aesthetic influences are so varied and they do change all the time depending on my surroundings. There is no real hierarchy to what might influence me; it could be anything, from formal hedge gardens to 17th-century ceramics, or Depression Era textiles and early Gutenberg Press Prints. I honestly find it almost impossible to narrow it down to three! But if I were to narrow it down to things I keep coming back to regularly on rotation, it would be architecture, textiles and the decorative arts, and early Modernism.
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In your paintings, you use a lot of repetition, which is not something you’d normally see used in the oil paint medium. As a painter, can you sometimes be obsessive?
Repetition came about through my interest in Formalism. As a figurative painter, I go a little against the grain because I have no interest in narrative. The design aspect drives me, and the repetition of elements is because I’m interested in composition over storytelling. I wouldn’t say I was obsessive, unless it’s the act of painting that can be somewhat obsessive. Stephen Westfall, a fellow painter who I studied with, said to me, “We are always just trying to find reasons to have something to paint.” I think this sort of encapsulates the motive behind a lot of what ends up in a painting. At the end of the day, it is all just paint. Whether it’s a figure, a rock, a flower or a stripe; it’s all the same matter. I think this is why painting is so magical.
You’ve mentioned that the whole painting process is meditative. But if painting itself were stressing you out, what would you turn to instead? 
That’s funny. I do get into a meditative state when the painting is going well, but painting stresses me out all the time! I enjoy that stress though; the challenge to overcome it stimulates me when painting. But when it gets really hectic, I go for a walk or I go home and cook a meal. I do have to remind myself to get my head out of the studio though, it’s hard once leaving the studio to really leave. I have to remind myself to not think about that space and to relax.
I love your use of perspective, and how the optical illusion of the paintings changes when viewed at different distances, and they even seem to ‘shake’ when viewed on a screen. But this looks incredibly complicated to achieve, something so mathematical. What brought you to this idea, was it through experimentation/fluke, or was it a carefully calculated decision?
I’ve always been interested in paint’s ability to create illusions; it’s ultimately what it does. I like the way you say “mathematical”. I’m actually terrible at math and only passed high school because the principal was nice enough to ‘flip’ my final grade, so instead of a 46% I got 64%! He’d seen a drawing I’d done, pointed to the picture and said, “You obviously won’t be needing math much.” I digress, but that was probably the first and maybe most important lesson I learnt about the power of art.
I suppose this inner logic I follow is a sense of geometry. There is a lot of experimentation but also carefully calculated considerations. It really comes down to what appears near, what appears far, and the play between that distance. This applies to both figurative and representational or abstract imagery. It’s a push-pull way of thinking. I’m currently interested in shallow depth of field, kind of like that of a screen.
When I initially started painting with lines, I had the idea of tapestries and weaving in mind, and seeing the paintings through a screen brought forth the pixilation aspect of creating these lines across the figure. Recently, the idea of looking at paintings through phones came up, as it’s the way we view paintings at this moment. Every painting I make, I have my phone with me and I take pictures throughout the whole process, between decisions, and then make these decisions based on the image on my phone. I think every artist I know does this.
I ultimately want my painting to look good in real life and on a phone. In this sense, the development of the lenticularity in the paintings became very exciting to me as it added yet another dimension. There are multiple places for your eye to land and then shift back to the surface again. Or at least that’s the drive, to achieve that illusion. Magic!
“At the end of the day, it is all just paint. Whether it’s a figure, a rock, a flower or a stripe; it’s all the same matter. I think this is why painting is so magical.”
In another interview, you’ve suggested that you’re interested in the edges of your paintings. This is something I’m always incredibly fascinated by with works on board or canvas – as despite the surface being 3D, many artists don’t consider the edges part of the composition. How do you deal with this, commonly secondary, aspect of your paintings?
When I speak of edges, I mean the corner-to-corner ratio or the filler spots. Like, “What do I put here to balance this out” sort of thing. On the one hand, it’s a compositional problem, and on the other hand, anything you put down on the surface garners meaning. Whether it’s a conglomeration of abstract brush marks or of brush marks that form a painted rock. Either way, information is there. So my interest in these spots of a painting has a lot to do with technique – I learnt a lot about how to paint by studying these areas on other paintings. As the focus of the image is being taken up elsewhere, you can get away with fudging or filling and often it’s this open-endedness that allows for interesting painting.
Many of your past works feature figures more easily distinguishable, more illustrated and clear. But you also have more abstract works you can only make out shadowed figures behind the illusory linear brushwork. What made you change to this, and what does it represent?
I feel I am constantly vacillating back and forth between losing the figure and regaining it. I have always been interested in pushing the boundaries of figuration, which is why I remain tied to the figure in my compositions. I’m interested in the recognizability of an object or figure, but also the abstract idea of an image. It is sort of how I fuel my interest to keep going with a painting, it’s like holding the reigns on something but allowing yourself to let go a bit, and then reigning it in again.
Figuration is so tricky because one can be so emotionally engaged with recognizing oneself in it, or the other. It is interesting to me to push past this primal urge to where the figure is representing an idea or a concept rather than a person. This is why the obstruction of the figure through the linear brushwork became so fruitful. It was an instance when the form and content fused beautifully, where the image became imbedded within the structure. I am still working around this idea.
Do you ever get into a negative headspace about your work, either about not liking it, not making enough, or being unable to start something new?
All the time! I actually never like what I do, which is why I keep doing it. Because one day, I just know I am going to make a good and better painting… and I’m only half kidding. Occasionally, I will like a painting or even just part of it, and I’ll get excited about that. Usually, after a few months, I will look back at something I did and think, “Oh, that’s not bad, actually.” Starting a new painting is always torture. I really hate the empty canvas and the way it feels putting down that first paint layer. It really sucks. Dry canvas, dry paint: yuck. But then, all of a sudden, shapes start coming together and you have the conundrum of having to piece it all into making sense and that’s when it gets very exciting.
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Like many painters working in 2018, you have a keen Instagram following and keep people up to date with your upcoming events and works in progress. Do you think that Instagram plays a key role in the art world today, and can many artists get lost off the radar without it?
I’ve totally embraced Instagram. I just love the fact that all this imagery is accessible to you at your fingertips. Instagram makes it possible to look at paintings at any given moment of the day, and painting just blossoms because of it. I have had a lot of conversations with people who will totally disagree because painting is visceral. But honestly, most of us learnt most of our painting knowledge from pictures in books. I didn’t see my first Van Gogh in person until I was twelve, but I had been looking at his paintings in books since I was three. Both aspects of looking were valid experiences that marked me equally.
I also love being able to chat with artists globally. I’ll have conversations with painters in Los Angeles, Ohio, London, Berlin, or Seoul without even thinking about it, and I will be influenced by these artists. I think of Instagram as my Cedar Tavern, you know, like the local bar to hang out and see what others are doing and be on the scene.
Do you ever get gallerists or other artists discover you on Instagram, which leads on to new opportunities and exhibitions?
Yeah, it happens.
And finally, you’ve just had a show in Montreal that looked really exciting! Could you tell a bit about what was on show there, and what else you have coming up this year?
Yes, it was a really nice experience with such a wonderful gallery, Projet Pangee. The women running the space, Julie Cote, Joani Tremblay and Michelle Bui are all artists in their own right and are really great people totally dedicated to the work. Mickey Mackenna, who I showed alongside with, was also a great pairing with the work. The whole show made a lot of sense to me and I feel very fortunate to have had that experience. I am now participating in a three-person show at Mother gallery in Beacon (New York). I am showing with Sophie Larrimore and Ken Tisa, which is such a thrill as I have been in dialogue with their work for a while now. You can visit it until October 20!
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