BILL JENSENby Ben La Rocco
CHEIM & READ | JANUARY 12 – FEBRUARY 18, 2012
In his current exhibition at Cheim & Read, Bill Jensen titles one diptych “Passions According to Andrei (Rublev/Tarkovsky).” Tarkovsky writes in Sculpting in Time, “I see it as my duty to stimulate reflection on what is essentially human and eternal in each individual soul and which all too often a person will pass by, even though his fate lies in his hands.” All of Tarkovsky’s work suggests this kind of inner search, and he made no secret of his belief that art’s purpose is to cultivate individual human spirits in preparation for death. Tarkovsky is the only artist explicitly invoked by Jensen in the exhibition, press release notwithstanding. The film he invokes, Andrei Rublev, is the story of a painter, so a specific equation is made here between Tarkovsky’s art and that of painting.
The idea that painting is a form of entertainment and that its governing principle is pleasure has always rankled. As I see it, this would make painting into just another enjoyable distraction from our inevitable fate. I emphasize Tarkovsky at the outset because the filmmaker, the painter Andrei Rublev, and the painter Bill Jensen all express a common, alternative viewpoint: that painting is a source of instruction and enlightenment. Call it salvation, a term to which neither Rublev (who was an icon painter) nor Tarkovsky, I feel comfortable saying, would object.
“Dogan” is a majestic, gestural painting with low-hanging ochres and magentas under umbers and a weighty darkness toward its upper edges. The painting’s generous gestures are framed by portions of the off-white ground left thinly veiled by paint lean with solvent. The Dogon people are cliff-dwellers living in central Mali. They are animists, believers in a spiritual dimension of non-human entities including inanimate objects. Animism tells us that objects can be “charged” with an aura that extends beyond their physical properties. Tuning oneself to the wavelength of this aura is exercising a sixth sense capable of interpreting sensory data in terms of a network of interconnected forces, many of which operate subliminally. For an object to activate the sixth sense, it must first be charged—as is everything in the natural world and as are so few of the objects in our contemporary culture.
It is a rare alchemy that allows for the series of adjustments made by a painter as he paints to translate into an object with animistic power. In “Oracle Bones III,” (2009-10) the smallest painting in the exhibition, Jensen scratches, chips, and claws his way to the image of a violet bone resting on what might be a chunk of sienna-colored wood against a milky white ground. We know that it is an oracle bone by virtue solely of the title: otherwise, we’d be left guessing. As in all his paintings, a subtle ebb and flow of energy makes itself felt. Gestures never seem abbreviated or second-guessed, yet there is an unmistakable care with which the artist respects the integrity of the picture’s surface to allow for the ghost of an image to emerge. So the full power of the artist’s focus, experience, and agility is put at the service of a vision of what the painting must be for it to communicate, for it to teach. Only in that extreme state can an alchemical transformation in the artist endow the painting with animistic properties. The inanimate bones, when read by a seer in this state, can tell of the future. The celluloid stills of a Tarkovsky film, when run through the projector, can speak to a person of his or her innermost destiny. And the tiny flakes of paint, deliberately and carefully spread across a canvas surface, can bring us to know our own souls.