Artist Cj Hendry “Loves a LOL”
She rose to fame on Instagram, but now the Brizzy-born Brooklyn transplant has found her place as a bonafide fixture in the art world with her humorous take on luxury and realism.
Sitting in a sizable (though relatively modest by her own accord) artist studio in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, surrounded by an Hermes throw, a Chanel surfboard, and hundreds of thousands of dollars of her original drawings, Cj Hendry mentioned the quarter life crisis that took her from a struggling Brizzy college student to a New York artist currently celebrating her sixth solo exhibit.
Now 31, Hendry is a successful hyperrealistic artist who has collaborated with brands like Christian Louboutin and counts Kanye West and Pharrell Williams amongst some of her most famous fans. She began her career with black and white pen drawings of luxury goods but has progressed toward colored pencils and abstract subject matter in more recent years. Her finished products look so freakishly real, a double-take is almost needed to confirm they are, in fact, drawings.
Her latest show, which opened last week and runs through April 21, is no exception. An extension of a prior series exploring swatches of paint drawn with colored pencil, Rorschach is a break from Hendry's hyper literal aesthetic and has a level of psychology injected into her photorealistic art while maintaining her brand's iconic level of kitsch and kook appeal.
But while Hendry has achieved relative success ("I'm not one of the big dogs," she insists) in the traditional art world, like many people of a certain age, she once found herself meandering along the well traveled and stable — if not predictable — path of school, to university, to job, to family, to a life well-lived. Yet, she felt unfulfilled.
“I spent seven years at university and I have no degree,” she laughed of her foray into traditional higher education. “I chose architecture because I thought it would be really lovely and creative. But then I found myself designing a toilet block while an intern at an architecture firm and just thought to myself, ‘this isn’t for me.’”
After spending two years studying the subject, she thought, “Hhmmm, I suck at this,” and gave finance a try.
“I sucked even more at that,” she said, smiling.
“It seemed secure. I knew you could make moneys out of that. But I was just chasing the moneys life. Or what I thought would be the moneys life. And it was just hopeless.”
Then came her life-changing epiphany. “I had a shitty job, was shitty at university, and just knew, ‘This is not how my life is supposed to play out.’ I’m better than this.” And like any true millennial would, she recited an inspiring mantra to propel herself forward: “I’m Beyonce. I’m Beyonce. I’m Beyonce.”
So with the confidence no one other than Queen Bey can inspire, Hendry dropped out of university, quit her job as a retail assistant at Chanel, and gave herself a year to pursue art full time. “If I was still at uni and still working and just drew three hours a week, it was just never going to happen.”
Luckily, she had limited overhead; she still lived with her parents at her childhood home in Brisbane, Australia, and primarily needed money only for her phone bill, snacks, and “petrol” (Aussie for gas). To supplement little money she had saved from her job, she gathered her entire wardrobe and sold it on eBay; with that money, she was able to afford the best materials and framing to make her art shine. “I just thought, ‘Let me give myself the best opportunity I can to make this the best it can be.’”
Four months later, she had her first sale. “I hate to say it, but it all came down to money. I wouldn’t still be drawing because I love drawing. But after that first sale, it kind of went from there.”
Hendry has been branded an “Instagram artist,” a moniker for those who owe much of their outward success to the social media app. The title is nothing short of accurate, but at times can seemingly carry a pejorative undertone, as if to suggest there needs to be a qualifier in front of the title of artist. There is no shortage of the creatives to be found on the platform. The genre has inspired several further subgenres — lettering artists, iPad cartoonists, fluid painters, just to name a few — of innovative individuals who have seized the opportunity to show their art and grow their community with effectively zero budget.
“It seems obvious now,” Hendry explained, but her plan never included embracing the transformative platform. “Instagram wasn’t a given when I started. But then it was like, ‘This thing is here, let me just try it.’”
As a photorealistic artist, however, her art, by definition, is supposed to look like a photograph. So a platform made to post photos would seemingly detract the very thing that made her art special. “I knew people weren’t going to believe the finished products were drawings.” She needed to find a way to demonstrate that her art was done by hand. This was before Instagram supported video; before Insta-stories; both now-easy ways to show process. So she started posting the quarter mark or halfway mark of her drawings before posting the finished product.
“People were like, ‘OMG!’” she said, laughing. “At the time, it was super impressive.”
With the platform still in its relative infancy, Hendry was able to snag some early on perks those today may not be able to obtain, like being featured on a recommended follow page, which gave her an immediate boost of numbers. “I got on at the right time,” she said.
Now, her page acts as a digital retrospective. Those interested in the progression of her art need only access to a web browser and a few swipes of your finger (or scrolls of a mouse) to explore her seven-year career. Still, she makes sure not to take it too seriously.
“Everybody whines about it because it’s so competitive and it’s not fun anymore. It’s just a thing you have to do. So now I just take stupid photos and it doesn’t suit this luxury brand that I’ve got, but people really froth over it. I think people are like, ‘Oh, there’s a real person behind this elegant thing.’”
It’s this juxtaposition that makes her brand thrive. She makes the unattainable seem approachable. She gives her fans a peak behind the gilded proverbial curtain. All with a snicker and a hint of irony that makes much of contemporary art successful. Just ask Damien Hirst.
“I’m here for fucking laughs. I love a lol,” she says, saying the once-abbreviation as the full word it's become.
This modern laissez faire humor of hers comes across in her art. Sure, there is the technical accomplishment — and it certainly is an impressive one at that — but rather, it’s in the way she utilizes her technical prowess that makes it clear she’s in on the joke.
Take her newest show, Rorschach, for example. Instead of drawing actual Rorschach tests used in psychological assessment, Hendry inserts her brand of humor by turning them into child's play, both literally and figuratively.
To find a room containing her latest series, guests must first take off their shoes, climb into, and then navigate a 3,000 square foot bouncy house resembling the padded walls of insane asylums of a bygone era. The stark white and padded 14-foot walls give way to a submerged gallery space showcasing the new series of colorful drawings of squishes of paint.
Remember in elementary school, when you had a piece of paper and put blobs of paint on one side, folded it in half, and then unfolded it to reveal a colorful abstract form? That’s the subject matter of Rorschach. “A psychological mashup of naive and sinister,” is how she describes the show in its press release.
Unlike her previous work that focused on the a hyper realistic representation of a real object (prior series include crumpled Pantone color cards and lipstick covered cigarette butts), this show instead harnesses her penchant for realism for the abstract.
“For a long time I had been bored with realism, its painfully obvious and rigid, the viewer is given no room of interpretation.” So she went literal with the ambiguity, again finding a way to subvert the expected.
Hendry is a delightful mix of self-deprecation and self-confidence. She’s honest about her clear talent in draftsmanship, but it’s not her skill that she counts as her key to success.
“Talent is this much of it,” she said, as she held her fingers barely an inch apart. “People think of artists as pot smokers. But I’m like, 'No, motherfucker.’ That’s not how this works.” Hendry points to discipline, structure, and her natural intensity as how she’s built her successful practice. “That’s what I owe it all to. Talent a bit, but I think it’s more than that, to be honest.”
She subscribes to a version of Malcolm Gladwell’s 1993 theory that it takes 10,000 hours to master a skill. “You can manufacture talent if you practice something enough,” she said. “I’m really not that creative. I’m a great copier of a photo. There’s about two percent creativity in that bitch. The rest is just draftsmanship.”
“Just draftsmanship,” however, involves sometimes hundreds of hours for a single drawing. Her process, though not complicated, is time consuming. Once she settles on her subject matter, she’ll begin with taking some photographs to figure out framing and lighting. Then she’ll edit the image a bit. Next she’ll project that final image onto paper and quickly sketch a rough outline of the subject in order to ensure more accurate proportions. “It’ll take maybe two minutes for a small drawing,” Hendry said. And then she starts scribbling. And scribbling… And scribbling. It can take anywhere between a week and a month to finish a single drawing, depending on the size of the canvas.
“I don’t do studies. I don’t know about that shit,” Hendry said. “I just sit down and crank it out. It’s like, if the photo says do black, I’ll do black. If it says go light, I’ll go light. It’s hard to explain to people. But I just say, ‘Bro, the photograph is sitting right fucking there.’ I just copy what I see. It’s like reading. I just put down the color that the photo says.” It's a modern (and much more difficult) take on Paint By Numbers.
Her subject matter depends on what she’s “vibing at the time.” Where she was once drawn to luxury, she now is drawn more to the abstract. The inspiration for her first foray into using color two years ago came from perhaps the most obvious resource for modern inspiration. “I was trolling fucking Pinterest.” She pointed to seeing makeup photography on the site as the jumping off point for the series she did for Christian Louboutin. “They wipe liquid foundation in this swash, and I just thought, ‘OMG, that’s it.’ So that’s what I did, but using colorful oil paints” in place of the makeup.
“I’m not into luxury as much as I used to be because once you’ve got the money to buy the things, you don’t want them as much. I still have them, but my focus is on being a better boss, not on all the handbags.”
Being a boss is a complication to life as a successful working artist that Hendry, now a boss of a team of five, did not expect. “I never intended to come out and be a boss of a thing. I thought I would just draw! Sitting down and drawing on my own very much suits my personality. Just sitting down and cranking it out. Because I’m an introvert by nature. But now a lot of my time is just thinking about things that need to be done. I’m learning how to manage people.”
Despite her clear success in her field with a dedicated following and a bevy of collectors and collector-hopefuls eager to snag any of her work, the intensely focused Hendry still doesn’t feel comfortable saying that she’s “arrived.”
“I’ve never had that moment where I’m like, ‘I’ve made it as a working artist!’ I’m always fucking scrambling. Because there’s so much that I need to do. I’m at the very early stages. I never sit back. I’m always looking to do something a bit bigger.”
Cj Hendry’s new show, Rorschach, will run through Sunday, April 21 from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. at 202 Plymouth Street in Dumbo.