Meghann Hennen is about movement. She is about exposing the self and being through her art, while pulling in the viewer in an almost intimate way and exploring her place in the wider Cleveland and arts communities.
"I feel like I'm not a Cleveland artist, because I have a hard time finding my place here," she says. "I still feel like an outsider sometimes, trying to build up being a part of the community."
Hennen's work is indeed unique: Combining painting and performance art with an interactive edge isn't something you see every day. We might think of Yves Klein's famous work using models as vehicles for painting those wild, blue works, but Hennen goes further still, using her own body to rein in the audience. Yet she still seems to struggle with the title of performance artist.
"I had this argument with my former grad school professor," she says. "I feel like I fight the label, but I also use it to my advantage. I am a painter as well as a performance artist. I know my performance is what is intriguing to people."
Intriguing is an understatement. In researching Hennen's artistic trajectory we stumbled upon "Dance painting #4," performed in Manahawkin, New Jersey. Here she has wrapped herself in plastic, bubble wrap and masking tape. Here she is literally submerging herself in her medium, dipping her hands into the cans of paint and working along the canvas. Hennen, who also has performed internationally, notably at Berns in Stockholm and in Paris, holds master's degrees from the prestigious Parsons School of Design as well as Columbia University.
Her first solo exhibition in Cleveland was at the former Legation Gallery, now known as HEDGE. Now It's Personal was a flurry of dance paintings that resulted in massive black and pink canvases that show Hennen's mastery over the support, forcing it to submit to her physically diminutive stature. The colors reference the ballerina's leotard and tulle.
The palette expands in her current exhibition at HEDGE, Circular Integrity. We can certainly see that her influences are tightly aligned with the abstract expressionists. "For me, I came back to looking at paintings from 2003 to 2004. Those were my BFA years, when I started to become a painter," says Hennen. "I looked at Helen Frankenthaler, Rauschenberg, Pollock, action painting, expressing my feelings and emotions through painting, and I loved the rich colors I was using. When I looked at my paintings from back then I am really a colorist; I love color."
Hennen brings us in to mimic and follow her movement. In "First Position" (pictured), we are invited to use the artwork as an outline, holding up our own arms to imitate the artist and the painting.
"As an early educator, I wanted this current show to be family friendly, incorporating ways to pull in the audience," she says. The artist would spend hours studying paint swatches to see which colors give and receive and picking colors that made her feel good. She uses black paint to choreograph the line that lays the foundation of her paintings. Hennen has created a piece that encourages the viewer to literally move it around to form designs of their own. She uses paint on blocks that we witnessed old and young alike interact with. We see her educator side at full toe point.
The artist surprises us with these new ways of painting, which suggest depth and movement. "See My Bones" is created with latex on mylar that is mounted on stretcher bars, which are typically used for canvas. The swirls of green, black and white pulsate, almost floating above the stretcher. We reflect on how the mylar and the wood contradict each other, the freedom of line versus the confinement of space.
Dispersed throughout the exhibition are works from her BFA years, as well. They are also controlled, yet riddled with movement. The eye travels throughout these paintings like an optic roller coaster. Although the style differs slightly from the rest of the exhibition, it is not a far stretch, and we see the evolution of the artist and her palette.
In our discussion, I asked Hennen who had given her the best advice when it comes to work.
"Irving Sandler, when he came to Akron to speak, I had just interned at Artist Space," she says. "He said to me, 'You aren't coming out of left field; I see where you are coming from.'"
She told us about how Jerry Saltz stated in a lecture she attended that, "everyone has an A for 'ambition' on their forehead," which really hit home for her and kept her laser focused on her goals. "Everyone has said to me since high school that I can't do this," Hennen concludes, "and now I have two Ivy League master's degrees. I will figure out how to make art and figure out what I need to do."
Spoken like a true Cleveland artist.