To some, the word, “Existentialist,” may be the distant reminder of a high school literature course, and to others, it’s a loaded description of their daily existence. April Henry is the contemporary artist behind Texts From Your Existentialist—a refreshing, highbrow take on anti-motivational posters that at first glance, might only appeal to the latter group of people. But her works are rather a meeting place for historical art and film stills with tragically comic text bubbles that make tiny jabs at our overarching human existence. And it’s all done in this very romantic, break-up sort of way.
As you begin to peel away the layers, you’ll find her works are dense; her syntax is often painfully aware of our disposition for pop culture as a catalyst for consumption. Take for example, her piece titled, “*illegally downloads peace of mind from the Internet* w/ #Bosch.” Those asterisks? Modern readers would recognize them as signifiers of action. The phrase, “We out here,” embedded in the text bubble, may or may not be a playful allusion to E-40’s 2012 hit, “Function.” This detail is what makes Henry’s works ripe with meaning, the title, text bubble, words and image all working together to form a greater meaning within our modern reality. You’ll find her works rich, intelligent and relatable, which is not an easy feat.
We decided to delve a little further and examine her thought process by exchanging a few words with Henry, below. If you’re not already doing so, you can bask in your existential dread by visiting her Tumblr or her Instagram.
What is your background in art history? In literature?
“It mainly lies in the research I have done for pleasure. I haven’t gone to school for art history, but I’ve always loved Renaissance art and older surreal artists, so I’m always looking at massive books of art and reading about the different movements in my free time. I’ve read voraciously since I was little and it’s been lifeblood for me—I’m always reading. My favorite is F. Scott Fitzgerald, and I’ve been into the beats since I was a teenager.”
What are your general thoughts on modern, contemporary and conceptual art?
“There have been some really inventive art movements and some ridiculous movements coming out of the woodwork in the past few years. Contemporary art is so hit or miss because the good stuff is hidden in small galleries, while the over-the-top plays on consumerism are getting all the accolades. So many contemporary artists are going for what will irk the masses the most or they try to shed light on the ridiculousness of celebrity media, yet it just gives the media more want to look into these celebrities rather than talk about what they’d rather people pay attention to. I want to see more Ruscha and less Banksy.”
There is a strong feminine presence in your pieces. Is this a conscious choice?
“Yeah, because I am a woman and have always written in my own voice. I do want to speak for the party line but I also want stay authentic to myself and want to give more voice to the sad girls.”
Are your pieces meant to purposefully have a comically tragic sentiment?
“Absolutely—there are so many über positive messages that pervade the Internet today that feel so alienating and I want to speak more for the people who wake up and don’t feel so comfortable in their own skin. It’s hard to connect with the constant deluge of body positive, ‘This girl overcame all odds and got into Harvard.’ While those are great, the every woman is often sad, and there isn’t much in the way of news that she can relate to and feel a sense of relief from. It’s so cool to post one of my pieces, a sentiment that I think feels really weird and exclusive to me, and so many people comment, ‘This is me,’ and, ‘Our lives in a nutshell,’ and, ‘I think this person is reading our text messages.’”
Do you ever feel unsatisfied with having used a particular image?
“No, I have a pretty large catalog of images I’d like to use in the future and I hold onto texts for a while until I know one artwork would complement the text perfectly.”
Do you have personal definition for existentialism?
“I have a post that kind of explains my definition of existentialism pretty well, which is basically, ‘As finite beings thrust into existence against our will, we never asked to have a human experience.’”
How do you think the text bubbles in your works add to their meaning, rather than say, if you added text in an arbitrary style?
“Well, before I started this project, I would write poems and some of the texts that would later go into my pieces over my favorite Nouvelle Vague Film stills and Schiele artworks (until it stopped being a relief to hand write my words anymore.) I think the text bubbles speak to our generation more than plain typography does. It’s more accessible and familiar for people to see a feeling in a way that they see it everyday. And it’s something that maybe people have texted in the same format to their friends in the late night, ‘What does it all mean?’ conversations.”
What would you like your readers to take away after seeing your work?
“That dread is more universal than they think and I hope they don’t feel as alone in their sadness and upset. That they won’t feel psychotic because they feel a certain way. I hope they have a sigh of relief that their feelings aren’t exclusive to them and that they can have a sense of comical relief to their woes.”