CJ Hendry tries New York on for size

First published in The Guardian

Sitting on a Soho stoop in a camouflage jacket and cut-off shorts, grinning from ear to ear, CJ Hendry tells me that New York City is a meat grinder. “This city is a cowboy’s city,” she says. “My balls have grown from kiwi fruits to watermelons in a year and a half. They have to, otherwise you’ll get swallowed up and eaten alive.”

The 28-year-old Brisbane artist will open her first solo show in New York tonight, The Trophy Room, at a makeshift gallery on Greene Street. This is no mean feat, according to Hendry, an achievement wrestled by sheer force of will from a cool and judgmental city.

“A lot of people talk big here and execute small. You’d think everything in New York was the biggest and the best, but it’s like everyone here is trying you on for size. No one will do anything just to help. People will say no 10 times and then that one time, they’ll say maybe,” she says, smiling.

Hendry has built her show from the ground up, micro-managing every detail from the art to the installation. She wants everything to be perfect – she is wildly ambitious – and New York has been getting in the way.

For anyone who has been following Hendry’s career, it’s gratifying to learn that not everything has come easily. Her path to success has appeared fast and flashy, powered by the jet fuel of social media reach. In 2013, after dropping out of an architecture course and scraping through a finance degree at the University of Queensland, Hendry decided to try her hand at visual art. She was a gifted illustrator, but perhaps even more useful was her knack for self-promotion.

On day one of her new venture, she set up an Instagram account to promote her work – both the process and the finished pieces. Her immaculately detailed, hyperreal drawings of famous brands and objects went viral, and her followers climbed into the thousands. Within the year she had sold her first piece; a larger-than-life pair of RM Williams boots, bought for $10,000 by a Sydney-based art collector.

In 2014, she presented a piece of work to Kanye West backstage at his Brisbane concert. (He would have been churlish to turn it down – it was a picture of his face on a hundred-dollar bill.) Savvy Hendry snapped a photo of herself delivering the work. To own one of her pieces now was to walk in the footsteps of Kanye.

Early in 2015, with two small Australian shows behind her, Hendry relocated to New York – a city big enough to accommodate her dreams. 18 months later, with a small but passionate team behind her, she is ready for her big-city debut.

Hendry’s hunger for success, her determination to make the business of art work, is reflected in The Trophy Room. The Greene Street pop-up space is lined with images of everyday things that are raised up on pedestals: Barbie dolls, a coffee cup, a Playstation videogame controller. Some are replicated in 3D and rendered in chrome at the gallery entrance. An 18-foot silver model of Mr Potato Head dominates the back of the room. There is a deliberate, meticulous sheen to her work that transforms the everyday into super-luxe objects of desire. This is Hendry’s magic touch, and it works just as well on her career as it does on the objects she draws.

The Sydney collector who bought Hendry’s boots was in New York last night, celebrating with her at a pre-opening function for close family and friends. The collector has as much reason to celebrate as the artist: in three short years, the price tag for Hendry’s work has risen as high as $80,000 a piece. The majority of Hendry’s art is sold via Instagram, where she now has more than 260,000 followers, but the official opening of The Trophy Room is expected to draw a serious cohort of collectors, including people Hendry laughingly calls “super-understated billionaires”.

Not that Hendry herself buys into the hype. Her name is emblazoned on a flag over our heads, buffeted gently by a New York breeze, but Hendry remains determinedly down-to-earth, her eye always on the future. Stretching her bare legs across the sidewalk, she shrugs and smiles. “It’s not like, ‘This is my coming out party, bitches! Look at me!’ It’s a show. It is what it is. I’m proud of my work and I’m displaying it in the best way I know how. It’s taken a lot of heartache and tears to get here.”