L Hensens [b. Bedford, TX, 1991] is a queer artist currently living in Portland, OR. They received their MFA in Painting and Printmaking at Virginia Commonwealth University in 2018, and their BFA in Painting and Drawing at the University of North Texas in 2014. Hensens backpacked the North California and Oregon sections of the Pacific Crest Trail in 2018. Notable exhibition spaces Hensens has shown work at include: The Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts [NY], The Anderson [Richmond, VA], and Page Bond Gallery [Richmond, VA]. L Hensens was recently included in the exhibition catalogue, New American Paintings Issue #147.
The landscapes I have come to know are my indifferent, involuntary lovers. I am vulnerable to these lovers, as open to them as their skies, valleys, and shorelines. These landscapes have provided me a sense of security, camouflaging me from the eyes of the public, where cultural norms and notions of otherness exist. Removed from the constraints of societal bounds, I quickly become aware of my queer, fleshy body as it fuses with the landscapes’ rigid terrain, the course brush stroking my exposed legs, and the warm sunlight dappling my skin. The queer body, like the landscape, is a ground which continues to resist oppression simply by existing, transitioning, evolving, and surviving amid the same dominating systems that pose threat to the environment.
Large scale and immersive, my paintings place the viewer within my body through visceral perspectives that convey moments of dizzying rupture and collapse, as well as curious and tender interactions with verdurous, lithic, and elemental surfaces. As the landscape’s lover, I proclaim that the landscape is a respectable force not to be trifled with, recognizing that there are boundaries to our intimacy. I portray the landscape as a precarious force through depictions of rough forms, and menacing elemental happenings that pose a very real danger to my temporal body. The paintings aim to give agency to the landscape, exploring the resilience of natural forces as an act of resistance. In specifying minute details of vast spaces and by exaggerating color, I consider the animism and consciousness that potentially exist in such an environment, extending beyond the limitations of oppressive, anthropocentric ideals.
OFF THE COST: Hello! It is pleasure to meet you and to sit down with you through this process. First off, what are you currently working on? What places/landscapes have influenced your work lately?
L HENSENS: Hi! I'm so happy to be here, thank you for having me. I just finished a piece I had been working on for over a year, Ceaseless Swell. This painting was based on the drainpipe of the Pacific, many know as Thor's Well, a sea cave with a collapsed roof. From the above-water perspective, it appears as a hole carved in the rocky shoreline expanding 9 ft in diameter located in Cape Perpetua, OR. As the tide rises and waves crash, the swell and suction of the water increase with great force, pushing water into the cave below the water's surface and out of the roof, spewing a gasp of sea spray. I visited this phenomenon for the first time when I moved up here in 2019. It reminded me a lot of breath, as an involuntary force, powerful plainly in its own reflexive and reactive existence.
After working on that piece, I finally have new things cooking in the studio. I'm currently working on three pieces, one being this massive fire plume, the White River fire, which I saw a year ago backpacking on the Timberline Trail, a 40-mile loop that goes around Wy'east. The other two are backyard paintings which both include a chain-link fence and various plant life.
Being in quarantine, my own backyard in Portland has become an important landscape for me, which as a more domesticated and curated ground, is new for me. I started my second garden this year. Growing produce along with the attention and cultivation it requires has changed my relationship with plants. My house and I also let the weeds grow. I love to watch the dandelions get sleepy and close as the shadow coverage blankets the lawn, and catch the moon glow illuminating the morning glories at night. I feel both secure and trapped in my backyard, it brings me comfort in my home-life but also has served as its own inescapable, apocalyptic, suburban landscape. Many disastrous events this past year created atmospheres that physically lingered in Portland: the wildfires of last summer which enveloped the area in a thick, opalescent, hazardous haze; the abhorrent and violent police presence who used dangerous munitions against Black Lives Matter and left tear gas lingering in the streets; the extreme blast and deadly conditions of this year’s record-breaking heatwave; and the global heartbreak and panic of a contaminated air of an invisible virus. I think of these devastating atmospheres, the grief of this landscape, and the futile beauty of my backyard garden. Anyway, there's something there informing current work.
OTC: What specifically influences you while encountering a new landscape? How is this sensation/feeling translated then into your medium?
LH: Getting to know a landscape new to me feels intimate, inquisitive, and humbling. I think of how the landscape can serve as a container for my body and all of its fleshy, temporal limitations. In some work, I have included my hand, my legs, and my shadow, all from my point of view as a way to place the viewer in my body to evoke a sense of participation in these humbling moments. During these moments, I also consider the scale of my body and my diminishment, not only in context to being contained within a vast space, but also in context to the unfathomable microscopic and unseeable happenings around me. It occurs to me that my body has entered a web of local networks; powerful and intricate ecosystems constructed by myriads of symbiotic associations. I think of how vibrant and sacred these life forms are and the kinship that I feel with them, which comes out in the paintings through stewardship and through the attention to detail I give in representing the landscape. I take a lot of care in the description of terranean textures, water ripples, repetitive plant forms, etc.; intending to give off visual vibrations, representing the landscape as a massive, lively network of information.
While experiencing a landscape for the first time, I consider the distinctions that make its ecosystems unique and how its intricacies shift through geographical distance, realizing how amazing it is that I can witness these monumental shifts through the movement and navigation of my body. Walking on foot for 650 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail through the northern California and Oregon sections in 2018 made this experience of environmental shifts steady and tangible to me. This transient way of experiencing the landscape has significantly informed my work. The trail was a teacher, both brutal and loving; and the landscape was both a terror and a companion. The paintings attempt to portray the landscape in both of these ways: through uneasy, jarring perspectives that convey an unstable feeling; and through tender, sensual moments of touch, melding my body and the land. Experiencing a landscape for the first time, for me, feels very familiar and secure; it grounds me and returns me to a very humbled and impassioned part of myself.
OTC: What artists are you looking at? What are you currently reading? Who/what in the tangible realm is informing your work, inspiring you??
LH: Inka Essenhigh, Emma Webster, Shara Hughes, Claire Sherman, Josephine Halverson, Elizabeth Glaessner, Charles Burchfield are a few painters I’m usually going back to. Basia Irland, Ana Mendieta, Laura Aguilar are non-painter-artists who are also very influential to me. I’m currently reading As Long as Grass Grows: The Indigenous Fight for Environmental Justice from Colonization to Standing Rock by Dina Gilio-Whitaker. Authors: Donna Haraway, Stacy Alaimo, Nicole Seymore, and Jan Zita Grover are hugely informative to my research.
OTC: Your work, for me, lends itself to realism but also expresses a mythical narrative, is this in line with some of your thoughts while working? What key memento in style do you find yourself going back to while considering your compositions?
LH: I can totally see that, for me, I think of it less as ‘mythical’ and more as ‘imaginative’ and ‘undisclosed’ narrative. I’m really interested in the idea that we, as humans, cannot fully grasp all of the potentials of a seemingly un-feeling landscape and all of its components. I think there’s something very curious in this inability to fully understand the communications happening amongst different elements and life forms in ecosystems; and who’s to say that there isn’t what we describe as feeling and consciousness existing in the landscape as an entity? So I try to evoke a sense of imagined animism to some of these subjects. In a way, it’s a rejection of the human-centric ideas: that we know all there is to know and that other life forms are not as intelligently and emotionally advanced as humans.
OTC: Where do you see your future work, though maybe still in early conceptual development, where do you see it taking you?
LH: The landscape is ever-evolving, and adverse human impacts on natural environments are escalating these changes by depleting limited resources, polluting ecosystems, and accelerating effects of climate change; all of which not only bring insurmountable harm to the environment but also devastate BIPOC and low-income communities. The issues of environmental justice and its social intersections will always be the fuel of my work. Am I painting through the beginnings of the apocalypse? Time will tell, but I expect that I will have plenty to inform my work in the coming years with the upcoming cataclysms that come with our capitalist society. If I go too far here I might over-share about my ongoing, internalized existential crisis... but I don’t think I’m the only artist on the verge of turning 30 questioning the importance of their own art practice while the world is literally on fire.
Speaking of fires, in early July this year, the Bootleg Fire in Southern Oregon was set off by lightning during a very intense drought, and has spread so largely, and wildly out of control that it created its own weather systems. I drove around the perimeter of this fire just 3 days after it started while dropping off my partner who was bike-packing on the Oregon Timber Trail. The sky was alarmingly beautiful, dirty, and opalescent, like a pool of spilled fuel on an asphalt sky, the midday fluorescent-pink sun casting filtered caution-orange light on the landforms below. My partner had to skip that section of the trail with other bike packers, bailing and hitting the highway to the nearest town, where they would shuttle themselves and their bikes 100 miles ahead to hop onto the next safe section of the trail. The Bootleg Fire has since spread to a total of 413,717 acres, becoming among the top three largest wildfires in Oregon documented history since 1900. The intensity and coverage of this fire bring to question, how much longer will such landscapes exist? Fire closures are not uncommon on west coast trails, and while it’s easy to get lost in the doom and gloom of it all, it’s not all entirely hopeless. Before the intensity of today’s uncontrolled wildfires, prescribed burns, a pre-colonial, millennia-old practice of Indigenous Nations are highly beneficial, restoring nutrients in the soil, and even acting as a prevention for uncontrolled fires, as prescribed burns can rid the landscape of fire-fueling vegetation. While this information offers a bit of a reprieve, there is a point when fires can be awfully detrimental to the environment and the damage becomes unrecoverable. With climate change escalating, burns are becoming catastrophic and nonrestorative. Unsurprisingly, these catastrophic fires on the West Coast disproportionately affect Indigenous communities, through both the reality of fires plummeting through Indigenous reservations and sacred land, as well as smoke exposing Indigenous migrant farmworkers to hazardous air quality. It is extremely upsetting that the people who have tirelessly and efficiently protected the landscape for thousands of years are most directly affected by the dangers of these fires caused by the ignorance and dominion of colonial rule.
OTC: Looking back, what do you think sparked the art spark in you?
LH: I started drawing from field guides and Zoo Books as a young kid. I lived on a pond where I spent most of my time in muddy boots with a net in hand, watching the ducks I had raised, and drawing and photographing those ducks. My parents eventually enrolled me in outside-of-school art classes when I was 8, where I continued to draw ducks with my mentor, BJ, who turned his garage into a classroom. It was a positive and wholesome experience, where I began painting regularly at 12 years old, learning to create landscapes with what now seem to be Bob Ross-informed tricks. I worked with this mentor until I graduated high school. His studio became a sanctuary for me. When I would arrive— my tackle box in hand, filled with Winton Oils and Prismacolors, I’d slip the trash bag that was fashioned into a smock over my head on which BJ had drawn a bow tie and buttons with a sharpie, his boombox either playing Vivaldi’s Four Seasons or classical guitar compositions, the air scented of freshly sharpened colored pencils and orange pumice hand soap- it was a relief from teenage woes and the anxiety that came with being one of the few out-queers of my Texas high school class with 500 students enrolled. I hadn’t considered getting my degree in art until meeting my high-school art teacher though, she was a huge advocate for me. So curiosity in my backyard, positive mentorship, and finding sanctuary in art-making are initially what set off my path.
1. Bloom and Burn
Oil on canvas
40” x 32”
Oil on canvas
24” x 30”
3. Inauguration of the Rampant Rally
Oil on canvas
84” x 107”
4. Tinder Tender Instinct
Oil on canvas
18” x 18”
5. Old Burn
Oil on canvas
40” x 52”
6. Feral and Fenced
Oil on canvas
48” x 60”
7. Ceaseless Swell
72” x 72”
Oil on canvas
8. A Soft Journey Through Rigid Terrain
Oil on canvas
60” x 48”
9. Ventral to the Verdant Void Oil on canvas
72” x 72”
Oil on canvas
46” x 38”