Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Bill Jensen at Cheim and Read

February 15 to March 24, 2007
547 West 25th, NY, NY

reviewed by Tim Campbell

Nearly two-dozen of Bill Jensen’s most recent paintings are currently on view at Cheim and Reid in Chelsea. This is Jensen’s first show at Cheim and Read, and his first show of works on canvas since leaving Mary Boone Gallery. The show reveals several years of a labor-intensive, virtuosic painting process that explores pigments, mediums, and emotions, but ultimately falls short because of Jensen’s reliance upon techniques and an inability to find new ideas in his own work.

Issues of The Brooklyn Rail were available at the gallery containing an interview with Jensen about his work and his sources for inspiration. In a particularly telling response, Jensen says that his work is very close to alchemy because of his desire to expose the energy that he finds inherent in materials; he speaks extensively on the different textures and uniqueness of pigments and the necessity to discover emotional content in these materials. In short, Jensen is addicted to paint and to painting, and this is what made the show so dazzling and so disconcerting all at once.

These new paintings are incredibly well-crafted and visually stunning; the materials are handled with great sensitivity and elegance, and the colours have a hyper-intensity that is arresting, highly emotional, and intoxicating. It is rare to find such thorough mastery of technique in art galleries. The craft and paint-handling are unapologetically the focus of these paintings, and Jensen utilizes his techniques to search for the quirky and unique compositions that result from taking chances and risks.

The paintings that stand out most are the stunning “Ape Herd VIII,” “Ashes,” “St. Sebastian,” and “Luohan #6.” The distinguishing factor that makes these paintings more successful is their ability to convey something specific, whether it is a sensation, emotion, or psychological state. “Ape Herd” and “Ashes” are two dark canvases whose faint gestural marks and deep black-violets convey somber moods and deep, empty spaces. They stand out from the other three paintings with same palette and emotional tone because the vague compositions and dark colors are more cohesive; they create gestures that border on recognizable images. This holds the viewer before the painting for a greater amount of time, which seems to be what Jensen is after. If he intends to wager everything on the materials and the process, then these works must be about looking for the viewer. Jensen is asking for patience from his audience, and for his paintings to work in this way, they must offer the viewer something to return to and dwell upon. This is slippery ground; many of the works in this show fall short because the compositions are generalized and thus inaccessible.

When it comes to content, Jensen helps some of his paintings along with a suggestive title. “St. Sebastian” and “Luohan #6” both refer to religion and religious icons (according to the press release, the Luohan were disciples of the Buddha). Jensen seems to be saying that his work has to do with a generalized sort of spirituality or religiosity; there are no specific indicators in the work besides emotion and composition, so the viewer is left on their own when it comes to connecting the works to their titles. Because of the slowness in the paintings and way that translucent colour is allowed to hover just in front of the canvas, there is a kindness, calmness, and consideration in these paintings that works well with the notion of spirituality. This sense of being content was absent in Jensen’s intense palate-knife paintings from the 80s, which explored darker parts of the psyche. It is this same consideration and contentedness that sets Jensen’s new work apart from traditional New York School abstraction.

Ultimately the hallucinatory colours that Jensen relies on in these new paintings reveal too much of the artist’s process and do not offer enough of a search. We can easily see the artist working, but we cannot see the artist making discoveries, surprising the viewer, or discovering unique paintings that remove the artist’s hand from the content. The game that Jensen plays is a familiar one; we have seen this struggle with chance and process in mid-century modernism. The great success of Jensen’s career is his ability to reinterpret this game and play it on terms that are unique to himself and his environment. The failure of this show is that Jensen relives the failures of mid-century modernism, only on his own terms and through his own interpretation. Jensen is clearly a painter of immense skill, but the viewer needs something besides virtuosity in order to find interest in the work. This show sidelined a few paintings that are absolutely wonderful, and filled the main gallery with repetitive gestures and repetitive colours. In the future, I hope Jensen will highlight his best, most unique works and sideline the repetitive ones, even if it means showing fewer paintings, because he is too good of a painter to be written off as a generic abstractionist.

A recent interview with this artist can be found at the Brooklyn Rail.

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