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Uninhibited Parameters: A Conversation with Riley Henderson, Part 2

Flyer for Uninhibited Parameters, 2011. (Image courtesy of Chicago Art Department.)

Part Two of the interview with Riley Henderson as he prepares for his upcoming solo exhibition Uninhibited Parameters at Chicago Art Department. If you missed part one, read the interview from the beginning HERE.

Tempestt Hazel: What kind of work have you been doing with the Restaurant Opportunities Center United (R.O.C.) and how does that inform the work?

Riley Henderson: I’m going to backtrack a little bit. During critiques at Columbia when I was making the Post Race/Racism work the question I would get is, “Why are you only focusing on the black and white relationship?” Personally, it was because I could only focus on one thing at a time. But that relationship is what sparked it for me because I know there’s a lot of history and depth to it in America and I was trying to understand why I felt certain things when I had never been formally introduced to these ideas that were somehow in my head. I didn’t agree with how I felt personally, so it introduced me to my own duality and this idea that I’m two different people…and I’m so many different things. I didn’t know how to answer that question of why I was focusing on that relationship.

Restaurant Opportunities Center United, Chicago chapter logo, 2011. (Image Credit: R.O.C. website.)

I [started] working with R.O.C. The restaurant industry is, for a large part, Hispanic. We focus on a lot of Hispanic and immigrant issues. I [got] to know many people in the industry and the organization and it added so much to the layers of how I thought. [It has taught] me a lot about labor movements and unions, which I knew little about. Uncovering that was like unlocking something that had always been in my mind. I felt like I was moving up and through a kind of fog.

So, I guess if anything R.O.C. has helped clarify things, and clarify my own opinion on race in general in America. It’s given me other perspectives to view from, including the working class and helping me to understand what class is and why it’s there, how it functions and how it functions alongside race.

For me, R.O.C. functions as another medium to express myself through, much in the same way that art does. That’s what I wanted with my work. I wanted to tell a story. I wanted to incorporate history and all of this stuff. I think what it was lacking at first is more of myself, which I think is what can make things interesting sometimes without blatantly putting myself in things but, learning about myself. Then finding out how that relates to other people. What makes us human. I have to remind myself sometimes that that’s what my work is about because it’s easy to forget that it’s about humanity and love.

That’s one of the things that I don’t [necessarily] regret, but that I wanted to move away from with the photographs. I didn’t like putting Black bodies in a negative space, which, I was doing satirically to talk about the racial rhetoric I was hearing on a daily basis without these people having concern or knowledge of what they’re saying. It was for a positive purpose but I still look at it sometimes and I cringe a little bit because it’s done so…then I feel like maybe I’m doing a disservice to what I’m trying to talk about and correct in myself and in people like me and not like me. Talking is really important. Discussion. So, I’m glad I made that work because that’s definitely something it did–help to create discussion.

Steeple (detail), 2011. (Image courtesy of the artist.)

Another thing–with the steeple, we were talking before about process…

TH: Right.

RH: I was drawing this when I was on the Roosevelt bus coming west from State. [pulls out a drawing from his sketchbook] I was trying to decide eight or six [points], eight or six, eight or six. I decided on six, which creates multiple hexagons.  And honey is an integral part of the show. It is taken from the phrase ‘Milk and Honey,’ this idea of lushness and abundance and prosperity. Honey represents that in the show. But it also represents stickiness and the way it can be heavy and inaccessible to some.

Then I realized that honeycombs are actually hexagonal–so basically it’s a giant honeycomb, you know. It’s a religious symbol but I’m using it to represent what we were talking about, the religion of America [and] the idea of capitalism. Traditionally, Gothic cathedrals and steeples were built so people could see [their] presence from a far distance. It was a symbol of fear and dominance as well as a symbol of prosperity and welcoming. I thought that was pretty interesting [as it relates to] the relationship of what America is to a lot of people.

TH: Definitely.

RH: The steeple is going to be about an inch off the ground and it will just be the frame of the steeple. You can see through it and see that it’s strong and built very well. But it’s also not totally rooted for everybody. All of these souls almost touched its prosperity but it didn’t hold and it didn’t come to them like they expected it to or the same way that it touches other people. [They] are searching for something and it ends up being not like they expected or treating them in the way that it treats other people.

Butterfly installation (detail), 2011. (Image courtesy of the artist.)

TH: With this exhibition you are breaking into not only sculpture, but also installation. Can you describe some of the other pieces that are in the show?

RH: I was listening to a special on [the migration of] Monarch butterflies and how they go from Canada to Detroit to a very specific town in Mexico. They do it every year and generation after generation follows this path.

They don’t have bodies that are built for that kind of migration–they’re very delicate creatures and many die on the way. With the butterflies, again, I thought that was a really powerful symbol for movement and thinking about why people emigrate. Why people risk that kind of harm to travel to a place they don’t know.

I was thinking about Mexican and South American immigrants and I read a statistic about the number of people who died crossing the U.S. border in a recent year, something like 500. So, I wanted the ceiling piece to be a semi-memorial and the cloth on the wire, that’s suppose to represent…well, if you’ve seen monarch butterflies when they try to stay warm they collect on trees. So, I wanted to cluster these butterflies on the ceiling–then I thought about it. Often times when someone is trying to jump a fence or get past something, their clothing will rip and there’s something that is left behind.

Riley's mother, Jennifer Taylor, helping out with the installation piece, 2011. (Image courtesy of the artist.)

TH: That’s exactly what I was thinking as you were explaining this.

RH: Kelly Kaczynski brought up the idea of not just using butterflies, but having it represent something else. [I’m also thinking about] not only where people are going to, but where they’re coming from and why. I think that’s really important. I hope that the honey on those ‘butterflies’ helps create a sense of heaviness. Butterflies are so light. The honey that’s on the cloth at the ceiling will hopefully not only give off a strong smell, but also just look like heavy wet things, these things that represent something that was, dead on the wire. Weighted by an aspiration that they weren’t able to grasp.

With the honeycomb, it’s interesting how that all eventually just worked together. I’ve been reading a lot about Catholicism and how it is really a religion based on numbers. Some people see God as a great geometrist. I think its a beautiful thing to see numbers, coincidences in things and how not everything is controllable. Even though we all experience things differently, we all have this connection. We all have something that we share that makes us human, common, and the same.

That’s another thing I need to remind myself of sometimes. It’s not [about] focusing on the differences, but what unites us. These emotions that make us human and the same.

Sunny Hill Honey, 2011. (Image Credit: Sunny Hill Honey.)

TH: How much honey is the show going to require?

RH: Well, I got a honey sponsor…

TH: Are you serious? How did you get a honey sponsor?

RH: My mother is a hustler in every sense of the word. She asked if there was anything she could help me with, and I’m hesitant to take help sometimes, even if I need it. And she said, “How about I try to find someone to sponsor you with honey?” I said, “I guess. Don’t try too hard though, it’s fine. I’ll pay for it.” The next day she sends me a forwarded email [between] her and the National Honey Board [with them saying] “Well, we don’t really sell honey, we just deal with honey issues…but we’ll send you a honey basket for your support.” [laughs]

Then, later she sends me forwarded emails from eight different honey farms and someone from western Illinois said yes! Sunny Hill Honey sent me five gallons of honey for free. I think it’s great and they are super supportive. So yea, [laughs] that’s how you get a honey sponsor.

TH: They’re probably stoked and confused about what an artist is using so much honey for.

RH: I don’t think she explained exactly what I was using the honey for. She told them it was for an art show, but I don’t think she told them that I was covering a steeple! After that I got inspired [to see if I could get more sponsors], so Honey Brown is a beer, and I got them to donate beer for the show. I think it’s great–to have a honey beer as you’re walking around this exhibit that’s covered in honey. [laughs]

TH: Going into the show, how do you feel about it?

RH: I’m excited. I’ve been thinking about this show for two years now. The flag is when it started to really come together. When I first imagined the show it was a circus of ideas and I knew it was just too cluttered with too many different ideas trying to converge that weren’t. So, I’m really happy.

I was nervous. It’s a 3,200 square foot space. I was thinking, “How am I going to fill that space?” That was my first reaction, that I don’t have photographs to line the walls. Then my friend Asher said, “Don’t think about filling the space, think about utilizing the space.” And that was such an important thing to understand because I still am learning about utilizing space, so I’m super excited about letting the work be able to breathe and not being overwhelming. Having a good amount of space for people to walk around and view the pieces, view them from different angles. I think that is going to be really important.

Uninhibited Parameters opens at Chicago Art Department, 1932 South Halsted, on September 23, 2011.  The opening reception will take place from 5:30pm to 10:30pm.  For more information visit

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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