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Henry Dean looks in the Margins

'Margins' is on display at Sulfur Studios from Jan. 4-13.

A CANVAS endures stretching and painting and, but that takes a backseat to the art it hosts.

Leave a canvas blank, and what happens?

The canvas becomes the art in ‘Margins’ by Henry Dean, opening Jan. 4 at Sulfur Studios.

‘Margins’ consists of two bodies of work, Tilt and Crescent Sun, that utilize canvas in a different way.

For Tilt, Dean painted with natural media—bentonite, charcoal, clay and hematite—on canvases and placed them in the marshes of Port Royal, S.C. The canvases weathered the elements for two months before Dean returned to photograph them as they stood.

“In a sense, it’s a little dance I’m doing,” explains Dean, a Foundation Studies professor at SCAD and the director of the drawing minor program there. “I paint the canvases at the early stage before they go into the marsh. What I’m really interested in is how to represent the damage that can occur, but there’s another thing, which is the idea of how the canvases resist the forces of nature. ‘Wow, they’re standing.’ They’re standing as a testament to the power of nature to sustain and live on.”

At first glance, the canvases look misplaced in the marsh, but as Dean points out, they couldn’t be more at home.

“Specifically my work is addressing landscape and environment and in a very real way, it’s getting into the environment,” explains Dean.

“They’re not of the landscape, they are the landscape. After they’ve been in the water, been eaten by crabs, after they come out of the marsh, they still manifest this experience. In other words, they’re almost like living things.”

Dean had a moment of clarity at an exhibition in Philly when two visitors skimmed by a huge beach scene he painted.

“Totally dismissive—they didn’t even hesitate,” he recalls. “That was a very important moment for me. I don’t want people to do that with the environment. This is a really important subject! If people are going to dismiss it or not even start to look at the work because it’s so familiar, then I really have to try to find a different way of talking about it.”

That’s when Dean realized how he could use the connection between helping the environment and painting landscape.

“In my work when someone comes in and they see something and they have a thought or a feeling they’ve never had before, an insight, ‘oh...huh!’ That’s what all the work is for,” says Dean.

However, Dean strives to keep his artwork from making too strong a statement, choosing instead to let the viewer have their own “oh...huh!” moment.

“I think very carefully in my career, especially with all of these pieces,” he explains. “I stay a little bit away from being very active in terms of trying to throw my work into a discussion about culture. I’ve been cautious, I don’t want my work to become labeled with what it’s trying to represent.”

In Crescent Sun, Dean put reflective panels near a ditch in Elloree, S.C., during the Aug. 21 solar eclipse. The panels were rendered in red oxide with gold leaf and capture the path of totality.

“I’m very interested in the forces of nature,” muses Dean. “Those forces to me have lots of different meanings and you can take them as being literal, and some of them are metaphorical.”

Since the panels in ‘Margins’ have endured the forces of nature, they feel more human to us. We have all been caught in a thunderstorm, gotten our feet dirty, or stayed out in the sun too long. The canvases feel what we do, which creates empathy, which is precisely what Dean wants.

“My work definitely is trying to create empathy. Empathy with the experience of the canvas,” Dean enthuses.

“My job is that in that gallery, someone’s looking at that and can feel that sense of time. Empathy is absolutely essential.”