Mario Henrique: The Visual Power of Emotions
In this first part of our continuing series of artists who promote the Black race through their work, we present Portuguese painter and designer, Mario Henrique.
Henrique graduated in communication design from Lisbon’s University of Fine Arts and started his career as a designer of e-learning systems, digital marketing platforms and websites. During this time, he won design efficiency awards and was invited to collaborate as an assistant teacher of arts and multimedia. Later, as a creative director, he recruited and led teams of designers and developers working on various online projects in Portugal, Spain and Brazil. As partner and head of design at BestTables, he built the company from a small startup to international status, and until its eventual sale. Soon after, Henrique settled into full- time studio practice, a passion he had always been preoccupied with alongside an active career as a designer.
Today, Henrique is well known for his art, central to which is portraiture. Influenced by the work of African artists, the majority of his subjects are Black. Employing somewhat unconventional means, Henrique prepares his monumentally-sized cardboards by spreading paint right out of the tube with a spatula. Proceeding, he conveys depth and accentuates areas of interest to carve out the forms. The results are at once chaotic and harmonious, as the artist gently persuades us to view the world through the profound complexity he successfully captures in the eyes of his figures.
Mario Henrique’s work can be found in private collections in Europe, South America and America. He owns a studio/gallery that houses a permanent exhibition of his paintings. In this interview, he speaks about his art including his creative process, as well as his most recent exhibition.
With a background in communication design, you embarked on a career in online marketing and web development, then opted out of a successful enterprise for full-time studio practice. Why did it take you so long to make this decision?
That is a very interesting question. The answer has two parts. Thereʼs the pragmatic and the aspirational side of it.
Regarding the first, and to be completely honest, I didnʼt commit myself to the arts sooner because I had a ‘safe job’. I enjoyed my work as a designer and creative director, had a nice income, and my sense of stability and commitment prevented me from leaving all that for a more inconsistent and potentially fragile venture – like earning a living as an artist.
The second factor has to do with a notion of fulfilment. I was a partner at a company that was acquired by the largest travel site in the world. So when that happened, I felt that my work there was done – that acquisition represented the best outcome for our efforts and it was time for me to start something new.
All of these happened in my early thirties, which is still an energetic period if you want to stir things up and change your life. Given that I always painted as a secondary activity, I decided it was time to make that my main focus from then on.
Today, museums, galleries, curators and collectors alike favour relatively new media like conceptual art, video, photography and installation, over more traditional modes of expression like sculpture. How would you react to the general impression by notable scholars that “painting is dead”?
I donʼt take that assertion seriously. When the Impressionists made their mark, the more conservative audiences also stated that painting was dead. Thatʼs why “impressionist” began as a pejorative term. Painting was also dead when Jackson Pollock started exploring the dripping technique, and painting died again when Rauschenberg did the white pieces. Painting died yet one more time recently when we started including Banksy in our artistic lexis.
The idea of painting doesnʼt have to be conventional and remain exactly the same as centuries pass.
In my work, I use cardboards as canvases, I draw with spatulas and rough brushes from hardware stores, I refer to photos taken with my phone and I sometimes make drafts or studies in Photoshop before moving to the actual painting. This is not a “traditional” approach, but I believe in using the tools and technology of my time. If Leonardo da Vinci had paint tubes, Iʼm sure he would have given them a try.
Painting has died and been resuscitated many times, it seems… To state that painting is dead is to admit that the imagination has an end, and that human expression has a limit. Personally, I canʼt see it.
In terms of process how would you describe your relationship to the medium of painting, what draws it to you specifically?
Itʼs a love/hate relationship actually. When I paint, Iʼm stealing from reality. Iʼm using a real reference, translating it in my mind, creating a tainted reinterpretation and reproducing it using the best of my physical and technical capacities. And it never works completely – the end result is never exactly what I could anticipate. And curiously, what draws me to it is that sense of frustration mixed with some surprise. Itʼs a strange and captivating activity.
Kindly take us through your creative process.
I always paint with images and photos as reference. I donʼt like using live models, that gives me a sense of urgency and self-awareness. I prefer to use photographs, which I proceed to hang in my studio walls. I print the same image in colour, in black and white, with more or less contrast, more or less zoom.
Then I select the colours that Iʼm going to use. Iʼm colour blind, so I have a short palette and paint directly out of the tubes and bottles, I donʼt tend to mix paints.
I start by throwing paint at the canvas, without much thought. I have my photos as reference, but this process is inevitably random and chaotic. I use large spatulas to spread the paint on the canvas and when Iʼm happy with the result, I start to “dig out” the subject using dark and light colours to convey depth and emulate shadows or bright areas. Basically, where the paint falls on the canvas is where the figure will emerge, so my process is very much based on chance and spontaneity.
Are your subjects randomly selected, or do they share your personal experiences?
Usually my subjects express the feeling Iʼm trying to explore. I find people’s expressions very interesting and try to explore their double meanings and subtleties. These qualities are particularly noticeable when the painting shows a face in a 2 x 2 metre canvas, as the expression is amplified and exaggerated beyond normal perspectives.
Besides the raw emotion captured on the faces of your sitters, how has your work evolved since such older series like ‘Ballerinasʼ?
The Ballerinas arenʼt old, in the sense that I still paint them. These are very fast, very abrupt paintings. I usually work on them while Iʼm between portraits. The Ballerinas are very spontaneous and “loose” productions, which allow me to rest my wrists and be less focused on details. Itʼs good to alter between the portrait series and the Ballerinas – they both represent the human figure, but formally, they are complete opposites.
In terms of work evolution, Iʼd say that the Ballerinas are getting “simpler”. This is what I strive to do – I want them to be very minimal, very clean. They started by having colours, but now they are black and white. They have less details, forcing the observer to play a deeper part in “reading” the image. They approach abstract expressionism, although they really aren’t abstract images.
At what point in your career did you realise it was important to project positively the Black race and was this decision informed by personal history?
Although I don’t exclusively paint Black individuals, they certainly comprise the majority of my paintings. There’s a depth, a profound complexity that I can’t really explain in words, in the eyes of a Black subject. And probably because I can’t explain it in words, I paint it.
I’m also influenced by African art, and own some pieces, like paintings and sculptures made by African artists. In addition, my family has some ties with Angola, so all of these certainly contribute to my visual universe, which is inevitably reflected in my work.
Last year, you staged a solo titled “Somnium” at the Art Village Gallery. Please tell more about the exhibition and the inspiration behind it.
I was invited to do a show at Art Village Gallery, in Memphis TN (USA), and was given “carte blanche” to paint what I wanted. I would be exhibiting in the same year as the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther Kingʼs death, and at some point, I was discussing his work and his Dream with the gallery director. This idea of the Dream was the starting point for the pieces I ended up creating for my Somnium exhibition (Somnium means dream, in Latin).
I had no specific intention of appropriating Luther Kingʼs Dream, although his message is certainly universal. So I tried to convey the idea of dreaming, in a sense of being immersed in thought. Itʼs a very personal, serene and contemplative state, which was challenging to portray, but I was quite happy with the end result. The reception was lovely and the gallery did a wonderful job in assembling everything and presenting my work.
You own a private gallery located at the Marina, in Cascais, Portugal, where some of your paintings are publicly exhibited. Do you intend to display the works of other artists in contributing to Portugalʼs contemporary art scene?
Iʼve done that a few times in the past. Iʼve had paintings and sculptures from local artists there, but as my own personal work evolved, I just couldnʼt find the time to be a gallerist or a curator and a painter at the same time – so it made better sense to devote the gallery just to my paintings. Itʼs a relatively small space, where I meet the public and show some of my work. The large scale pieces are kept in my studio, which also has a private viewing room that can be booked by appointment.
Your series ‘Vultusʼ causes the onlooker to be confronted with the gaze of your subject. What did you hope to achieve when producing this body of work, and how would you evaluate its success?
My ‘Vultus’ series depicts mainly Syrian and Sudanese refugees, and migrants from the north of Africa. These are faces that I saw in newspapers and magazines, mostly. We see them every day – and because of that recurrence, I was starting to feel numb about it. Which of course, one shouldnʼt. So I decided to paint their faces in large scale, making them more present and bringing them out of anonymity. And I also made these faces look directly at the observer, in order to reflect any judgement being made.
Some of these pieces were shown in Hamburg and others in Atlanta, at the Bill Lowe Gallery – the gallery that currently represents me in the United States. It has been a privilege to show these works in different continents and being welcomed in both of them.
What future project would like to share with us?
My last few exhibitions were all abroad, so now Iʼm focusing on doing a local show this Spring. Itʼll take place at the beautiful Flores do Cabo gallery, in Sintra – near Cabo da Roca (Portugal), which is the most western point of Europe. I canʼt say much about it now, not because Iʼm being secretive, but because Iʼm still working on a series of paintings simultaneously and the end result is still a bit far from a cohesive reading. But it’ll get there, the pieces are falling into place and I’m starting to see where everything is headed… And thatʼs a nice feeling.
January 20, 2021
January 15, 2021