ESQ: Are you in the studio now?
CJ HENDRY: I am! I’ve been drawing as I’m chatting with you, so you’ve got me at my best.
ESQ: Is it your quiet space when you draw?
CJ HENDRY: It really is. I won’t describe it as meditative, but it’s a very nice place to be.
ESQ: But you’re also busy with the exhibition this week [ed’s note: this interview took place in March and the exhibition in April]?
CJ HENDRY: Oh my goodness yeah. We don’t start installation until the first of next month, but there’s still a lot of prep work going on at the moment. We’re three weeks out and it sounds like a long way away but we’re getting very close.
ESQ: It must feel like giving birth, I assume.
CJ HENDRY: I know, it does actually. We’ve been planning RORSCHACH this time last year, so it’s been long.
ESQ: Tell me a bit about it. I understand it’s about a contrast.
CJ HENDRY: Yes, it’s an amalgamation of two very different aspects. We have the childlike and naïve squish paintings, which I’m pretty sure we’ve all done at some point of our lives—put two blobs of paint together. I find that interesting because it’s the most elementary form of artwork and it’ll always turn out differently because you can pick as many colours as you like.
But it also takes on a much more sinister meaning in that people back in the day—I think some places still do—use inkblots in psychological testing to tell someone’s personality. It’s a fascinating topic, mental health being what it is now. In some ways I think I’m a little crazy too, a bit of a split personality sometimes. I’m a bit of an introvert but I play the extrovert really well, so I feel like I’m pretending a lot of the time.
It made me think, “Well, shit. Maybe I was talking about myself the whole time in this show”. Maybe it’s me speaking to the part of me which it can’t really connect to on a normal level… you know? You’ll see how truly crazy the physical show is when it unfolds. We’ve really gone all out with trying to make people find themselves wondering if they’re at a kid’s birthday party or a psych ward. It’s such a funny mix of two very different worlds.
ESQ: Damn, wish I could see it.
CJ HENDRY: Oh you’ll see it on Instagram. I think you’ll get a really good vibe of what’s going on.
ESQ: When you were describing the show, the first thing that came to mind was Sia’s ‘Elastic Heart’ music video, where she portrayed her inner child and adult having that internal conflict.
CJ HENDRY: Yes! That was cool! Okay I’m going to reference that, thanks.
ESQ: Hey, you have to credit me.
CJ HENDRY: Oh I will but yeah, that’s exactly what it is. It’s showcased in a fun and playful way but there’s this underlying darkness going on. I’m really proud of the show. For a long time, I’ve been quite frustrated with realism. Grateful as I am to have. this gift, part of me gets frustrated because the drawings are so obvious as to what they are.
I’m obsessed with artists and contemporary art where the meaning is not so apparent. So I’ve become increasingly frustrated with the fact that when you see some of my pieces, it can be nothing but what is drawn. The art that I’m inspired by looks nothing like my art.
ESQ: Like the buckets of shit you mentioned in your TED talk?
CJ HENDRY: Yeah! That one’s funny! I’ve been searching to do something that’s not so blatant and I think I’m coming really close to that in the show. I don’t think it will always be that way, but I’m very excited to finally be able to turn realism to a more abstract level.
ESQ: Is that an end goal for you; to turn hyperrealism into something else?
CJ HENDRY: Well… it’s not an end goal but it’s been a goal for a while. It’s been enjoyable to explore that at least.
ESQ: Your influences—global or innate?
CJ HENDRY: I think global. It can come from anywhere and I never know when it’s going to hit. It could be a person I saw, a plant, make-up photography. That was how the first paint series happened years ago. I sit on the idea, forget about it, then it comes back, but I’m never searching for it.
ESQ: So how did crumpling come about?
CJ HENDRY: I used to work at Chanel as a retail employee, and being exposed to luxury at that young age, I liked the idea of how the black Chanel paper bag gets crumpled and thrown in the trash. It’s funny because they’re so iconic. If someone’s walking around with five bright orange Hermès bags, you’re like, “What is in there?”
They’re almost more important than the thing inside the bag. They’re free, but they’re such a strong representation of the brand. I’m intrigued by this status symbol that in itself has no value, and that’s where it started. I think the reason for crumpling might be that it speaks about the end of something.
ESQ: And how did you choose to jump from black and white to colour?
CJ HENDRY: I was pigeonholing myself, and if you want to grow and develop, you can’t keep doing the same thing. With music artists who have a hit, they just keep pumping the same thing out. I think once you have a hit, that’s when you should try something different. You can’t rest on what people like. I’m grateful for the love I get for my work, but that’s my signal to change things up. I can’t let black and white define me and I can’t stop there.
ESQ: I think it’s great to have that approach as an artist. Have you had any painful or costly mistakes?
CJ HENDRY: I think so, yes. Not so much in drawing only because it’s quite natural to me, but I mess up a lot more in everything else, like learning to manage behind the scenes. I don’t always publicise those mistakes, but maybe that’s something I should work on.
ESQ: What about in terms of your journey, since you took several detours before you got to where you were? Do you see that as mistakes or did they help shape you and what you do?
CJ HENDRY: It seemed like such a mistake int hat moment, but in 20/20 hindsight, I can see how blessed I was from the experience. I also look at it like this—when you’ve become successful from the mistake, of course you’ll say you learnt from it. But what if it didn’t work out? I would have seen all those wrong steps as a big negative rather than a benefit. It can be easy to look at what I’ve done with rose-tinted glasses.
ESQ: That’s very true. What has been the most surprising thing about your entire journey?
CJ HENDRY: Good question. I didn’t anticipate, nor did I want the beautiful response I’ve received but I know I have to embrace it. I just set out to make art and I still want to make art. Everything else is secondary. So how involved people get in the process and how they enjoy the story are what surprised me most.
ESQ: Where do you think your work would be if not on social media?
CJ HENDRY: That’s a great question because I kind of grew up with social media, so I don’t have the answer. I think I would still have made something work. I’m quite resourceful and I do my best to figure a problem out. Probably go through the normal system of galleries.
ESQ: Do you think that would have had a lesser impact on the popularity?
CJ HENDRY: Potentially. What I do know is, as a friend put it, you can’t hide good work. It may have taken a little bit longer but I think my work resonates with some people.
ESQ: Which work are you most proud of so far?
CJ HENDRY: I’m not very sentimental so I don’t revel in my past work. I tend to love the current works as I do them.
ESQ: Have you thought about what you want to explore next?
CJ HENDRY: Hmm. It took me this long just to come up with this idea for the Rorschach series. I have numerous ideas that I experiment with, but if I don’t love it I go back to the drawing board. I go down the rabbit hole heaps of times and sometimes it just doesn’t pan out. I have completed a whole series that I now keep in my storage cabinet which I decided not to release because I’m not completely obsessed with it.
ESQ: How do you decide when a series is complete?
CJ HENDRY: I work on a number I find appropriate for the story and cap it there. There are always only one of each and then I never revisit the idea again. With Rorschach it’s 25 works, opportunity for five custom larger works, and that’s all it’ll ever be. People won’t be able to get them after that. Once it’s done, it’s done.
ESQ: Do you in some sense consider yourself OCD?
CJ HENDRY: I know OCD is a proper clinical disorder and I’ve never been diagnosed with it, but there are elements in my brain and the way I like to work which really appreciates structure and organisation. I might have used the word too freely and I’m not giving it the respect that it deserves because I know people do suffer from it.
ESQ: Yeah that’s a prevalent thing now. What is your biggest fear then?
CJ HENDRY: I don’t really have too many fears because I believe in manifestation, for example, if you freak out, that thing will happen. I don’t get freaked out by much because I don’t give my time. I may not have the answers to everything, but what I do know is my team and I just have to figure it out. The more you’re exposed to navigating a solution, the less scared you’ll be.
ESQ : So no personal fears at all?
CJ HENDRY: Not really, no. I’m sorry to disappoint you.
ESQ: Damnit. But it is a healthy mindset to have.
CJ HENDRY: And I’m not some Zen-practising person. I just genuinely don’t give it any time.
ESQ: My biggest fear right now would be my laptop just crashes and the entire interview didn’t get recorded.
CJ HENDRY: Oh come on. But if it didn’t, you just call me back and we’ll do this again. It’s not a big deal. I really appreciate your insightfulness and wonderful questions.
ESQ: Thank you.
CJ HENDRY: It’s my pleasure. I’m just grateful for the interest in what I’m doing. In fact, I hope the interview did not get recorded so we can chat again.