“Figure 3,” ink on Dacron sail, 2017 All works by Stew Henderson/images courtesy of the artist

Stew Henderson’s grandfather was a patent attorney in New York for the first half of the 20th century who kept the decades’ worth of patents in huge books that, in recent years, were passed down to the artist.

As Henderson leafed through them, he became fascinated by the visual language of the technical drawings as they developed over the years. It wasn’t the inventions themselves that interested him but the ways in which they were represented and the subtle changes over time in the embedded calligraphy used to identify every last bit of the objects down to the tiniest screw.

As he flipped through the exacting pages, the visual elements began to reveal themselves to Henderson. Steel was represented in a certain way. The motion of mechanisms came into focus. Elements – most of which were alien to the artist – were repeated. But even as the visual language came into focus, Henderson, an experienced professional artist and preparator at the Colby College Museum of Art, was enthralled by the stylistic development of the hand-rendered letters in the drawings. “Fig. 1” ( or 2 or 3) is a leitmotif among the 30 paintings, prints, collages and drawings in “Art as Invention as Art” now on view at the Frank Brockman Gallery in Brunswick.

“Lost Planet,” ink on mylar with collage, 2018

All of the works in Henderson’s “Patent Series” use imagery directly taken from the illustrations in his grandfather’s patent books. The first series layers found collage imagery among the patent drawings photocopied onto mylar. The effect is somewhat surreal and yet oddly personal. Sometimes the logic is visual, such as a series of three shells on a drawing where the nautilus echoes a moving circular part. Another image includes a photo of a dog in which a mechanism resembles the tags on its collar. An image with a set of circular forms seems to have reminded Henderson of the planets, so he collaged in three full color circular photos of planets.

Another notable set of works feature Henderson’s hand-rendered versions of the drawings on white sails he was given by another nautical relative. The sails make for a surprising interaction with the images: One can imagine a how-it-works manual of a sailing ship with all its gears and mechanical complexity. While “Art as Invention as Art” is not overtly nostalgic, there is a wisp of the plight of relatives and inventors coming to the newly built and ever-inventing America. In a show dedicated to the idea of the new, the theme of immigration is subtle but undeniable. Ideas come from all over, and they are gathered together to make something better than before.

Henderson has long had an extraordinary sense of detail in his paintings, and here he puts it to excellent effect. Using some type of marker, Henderson’s renderings reveal his sense of detail and precision, as well as the quick confidence of his hand. This effect is ironically recalled by a series of images on raw wood panel into which he burned his hand-drawn lines: This is an incredibly slow way to make a line; and to very slowly draw, for example, a straight line is extremely difficult.

Particularly impressive is a series of paintings in which Henderson mostly covered several of his older “Chasing” paintings (a series in which red, yellow, blue and gray rectangles revolve around the exterior of the work with a continuous, jumpy flowing motion towards the center) with white paint on which he then hand-rendered versions of the patent drawings or elements from them. “Flying Hinges” is a particularly interesting piece because it so clearly represents a chair. The effect of the painting under the image adds a sense of energy which, coupled with the springs in the drawing, creates an almost frantic feel.

“Spark Plug,” wood burn on panel, 2018

The few exceptions make it clear that recognizing the subject of the patent drawing is not part of Henderson’s project. A few, like the chair, a pair of levels and an airplane, are immediately apparent. Some come into focus with a few minutes consideration: I recognized a spark plug, for example, only when I finally noticed the ground electrode (the bent piece of metal that creates the gap for the spark). I also recognized a hand drill, probably only because I grew up using what must have been that exact same model.

To clarify his model of visual language, Henderson repeats many of the same images – however illegible they are to the viewer. This is like encountering a common language you don’t speak. Maybe you know a few words, enough to recognize what it is, but after that, what you experience are textures, intonation and repeated phrases. In other words, the first thing you have to do is recognize that it is a language with its inherent structures and repetitions. Henderson’s underlying project is to present what he sees as a specific visual language. His attention to the calligraphic elements, such as “Fig. 3,” and how they quietly shift in style over time is a reminder of how languages are dynamically connected to culture as they shift and grow through time. I think that putting this linguistic idea in such clear terms as “art” and “invention” is profound on Henderson’s part. Art is inventive. Inventions are, many would say, the very stuff of forward-moving progress.

By linking these ideas to his family and personal legacy, Henderson is making a compelling case that the personal is cultural. Visually, I might prefer other paintings and collages by Henderson, but  “Art as Invention as Art” is brilliant exhibition.

Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at:

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“Flying Hinges,” ink and acrylic on canvas over panel, 2019

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