February 15 - March 15, 2008
Drawing is one way to get out of a hole. Ever since Bill Jensen arrived in New York from Minneapolis in the early 1970s, bringing with him drawings of spirals and ellipses, drawing has been central to his practice. Over the past thirty years, he has moved away from the coiled and torqued abstract forms that first gained him attention, to a wide range of forms adapted from nature, and, during the past decade, to gestural forms and inflections made with ink and tempera, that owe something to Chinese calligraphy and Abstract Expressionism, particularly James Brooks, who “work[ed] from accidents,” and whose method of applying paint preceded those who claimed to have invented staining. The progression of possibilities that Jensen has explored and subsequently shed suggests that his primary interest is in forces rather than things, states of irruptive change and disintegration rather than static forms. For him, matter (both the materials he uses and the forms he draws) is under constant pressure, and their existence is perilous at best. As his last show at Cheim & Read (February 15 – March 24, 2007) revealed, Jensen is defining and exploring a territory that is connected to very divergent aspects of Abstract Expressionism (Ad Reinhardt, James Brooks and Jackson Pollock)—lightless light, the interplay between order and disorder, and gesture as form. In all three areas of this territory, which abut and overlap, larger chaotic forces emerge as the shaping feature.
Jensen’s interest in Chinese art isn’t confined to calligraphy; he has studied Chinese poetry and Taoism enough to understand that, as he said in an interview with me that appeared in BOMB (Spring 2007), “the Taoists believed that human beings could not see the phenomena (nature) as it really exists, and that [they] only mannerize it.” For him, the issue is “how to make art about how the phenomena sees itself without the influence of human beings.” Jensen’s stated desire expands upon Pollock’s well-known 1947 statement in the magazine Possibilities: “I have no fears about making changes, destroying the image, etc., because the painting has a life of its own. I try to let it come through.” In contrast to Pollock, who saw himself as a conduit for painting, Jensen wants to step completely aside, which we are inclined to believe is impossible but, to my mind, is certainly worth attempting. In case you haven’t guessed, this is the opposite of Warhol’s individual as machine. It is also an anti-Platonic, anti-Aristotelian approach to art, which, among other things, is connected to both Taoism and Ralph Waldo Emerson, particularly his essay Nature, where he wrote: “I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing.”
The attendant issue is how to get beyond one’s taste and aesthetics, not to mention the materialist standards and rules of assimilation governing society, and collapse the gap between doing and being, especially when you are trying to accept that you can step aside and become “nothing.” (Brooks tried to do something similar, but never got as far as Jensen has in his work.) In the context of the art world, this makes him liable to the double indictment of anarchism and refusing to make market-friendly art. It’s easy to see why Jensen has been a cult hero to many younger painters; he doesn’t play by the rules or make it easy for the viewer to like his art. You can hardly fault someone for taking such a stance since it is perhaps one of the few that the mainstream art world would have trouble co-opting and turning into a digestible conceptual package. And, to his credit, Jensen supports this anarchic stance in his work, which goes against the grain of what we expect when we think of gesture.
Gesture has come to imply expansiveness and the autobiographical, both of which Jensen rejects. Done in ink and tempera on paper, most of the works were small, around eleven inches high and nineteen inches wide, about the size of an open book. The size of the work is at odds with the kinds of marks Jensen makes and the ways he gets ink onto the paper, restricting and repressing their unrestrained energy. An unavoidable fury or force is always present, always extending past or coming in from the edges. And yet this tension never becomes a mannerism, something stated over and over again. There is no overriding method of structuring the surface, evoking depth, suspending forms, or making and wiping or washing marks, which some viewers may find maddening, especially if they are in the habit of looking with a quick, appraising glance. For what these drawings challenge us to consider is where order ends and chaos begins. It is when I can’t tell that I sense something really new is happening.
Different densities of materiality are present in most every drawing. The forms, which sometimes seem limb-like and phallic, can be solid and dark or semi-transparent, like film. It’s possible to end up looking at, through and into them without ever finding a focal point to hold onto. By packing multiple areas and layers of interest into one modestly scaled work, its forms moving simultaneously beyond the edges and toward the center as they congeal and disintegrate, Jensen achieves something remarkable: a partial glimpse of a world in flux, of something far larger and unknowable. His work puts me in a mindset similar to a contemplation of astrophysicists’ models of the universe. It all adds up, but I am not sure how or why.
Standing at a considerable distance, say fifteen feet away, I was reminded of film emulsions, of one material suspended in another. It is this state of suspension, and the sense that it is temporary, under siege, and about to change into something else, that gives the best works their obdurate power. In these works, a few forms that seem solid and porous, fixed and disintegrating, suspended and free, end up holding our attention the longest. In some works, it’s as if different forces are working at different levels simultaneously. Notes from the Loggia XII (2006) and Notes from Loggia I (2005) are good examples. In other works, like Drunken Brush IV (2006), the calligraphic structure seems to be barely holding the paper, and one imagines a strong breeze could blow it away.
One of the strengths of this show is how much the works demand to be seen on their own terms. Every time one gets a rhythm going, and starts to pick up where one work shares something with another, Jensen does the unexpected. A gray, washy smear —the silty traces of something that has been wiped away—becomes a form that is dissolving and reappearing before our eyes, Drunken Brush VI (2008). Scale and density change, forms pass through one another, and a compressed and layered spatiality keeps threatening to blow open. The figure/ground relationship is never predictable, and the space seems simultaneously cosmic and microscopic, immense and minute. In the strongest works, Jensen inverts Abstract Expressionism. Instead of making a gesture as a sign of assertion and open defiance, Jensen’s forms can be read as vulnerable presences undergoing inexorable change. Philosophically speaking, the artist seems to suggest that we are not in control of our destiny but that is not reason enough to become a defeatist.