The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2011

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OCT 2011 Issue

Letter from BERLIN
SERGEJ JENSEN Master of Color

Listening to the distinctive voice of Chan Marshal (Cat Power) recast the sounds of Memphis soul on her 2006 album The Greatest (no more seeking an equivalent to the source than Bob Dylan was with Woody Guthrie’s music) begs the old question—what is originality? In the Western painting tradition (that’s Western European, not West Coast), Kurt Schwitters, Sigmar Polke, and Blinky Palermo all recycled and improvised painterly effects through material stand-ins long before Sergej Jensen did. There are always precedents; it is just that not everyone, or sometimes no one, sees them. And these artists have experienced the disdain of an audience that reacted to unforeseen transition, as when Bob Dylan’s acoustic folk music suddenly, one night in Manchester, England, became electric.

Installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Galerie Neu, Berlin. Photo, Lepkowski Studios, Berlin.
Installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Galerie Neu, Berlin. Photo, Lepkowski Studios, Berlin.
On View
Galerie Neu
September 10 – October 22, 2011

There is something that still surprises when an artist reacts to materials, sounds, or available images in a way that simply feels good or feels right; creating something different where everything is rationally believed to have been done before. Enough already, it’s exhausted, surely: But wait—that wrong thing and that wrong source, apparently finished with or used up, sometimes produces the right work. The intentionality involved can be so banal that an artist who needs the reassurance of justification should steer well clear. Pablo Picasso’s (1881–1973) whorehouse in Avignon, “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” (1907), became a groundbreaking work of early Modernism, but not until the best eyes in the business, those of Henri Matisse, had told him it was bad, very bad, and consequently the painting was turned to the wall and not exhibited until 1916. Then, as now, most people think that they can spot the best work by an artist right away. But just as time is an unpredictable factor in the making of a work, so it is in viewing.

Like Cordy Ryman, who sometimes improvises with sculpture and objects in his painting, riffing his materials like a guitarist, Jensen also does not belabor a studious relation to other art. It is more a way of thinking, doing and, later, absorbing, without a fixed rationale—it is an open, intuitive strategy. Material means to structural ends, without the comfort of signification.

Jensen’s current exhibition at Galerie Neu is titled Master of Color. The paintings themselves, all from 2011, are untitled. There is no list of works with an inventory of materials, or even a press release. The placement of the paintings, and this seems a more appropriate term than the more expedient “hanging,” recalls Blinky Palermo’s “Komposition mit 8 roten Rechtecken” (“Composition with 8 Red Rectangles” 1964), which may sound odd until one considers that Palermo was described by Joseph Beuys as an artist who appreciated a very particular ordering of the things around him, whether domestic objects at home or the installation of his artworks in a gallery. For Palermo, paintings were always configured in direct relation to the world, its colors and its forms; the desire was for emotional connection. As with music, the emotional and intellectual in his work are as one, and this is also true of Jensen.

Jensen’s exhibitions are always inclusive of the gallery as an environment, its lighting, furniture, and fixtures, all acknowledged, or supplemented. An earlier exhibition at Galerie Neu, Arbeiten und ein Feuerwerk (2004), not only included chairs, sofas, and rugs brought into the gallery by the artist, but also a log fire and fireplace, inserted into the wall.

In an interview with Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson, Jensen described his way of working as a process of removing everything that didn’t satisfy, a kind of avoidance of that which didn’t work. It was not an obsession with the materials that happen to make up surfaces for the application of paint. This intuitive pragmatism led not to an exegesis of abstract painting, but rather to a semblance proceeding from the artist’s absorption in images and surfaces that felt right or inspired curiosity.

Transience, as a theme, seems to be a byproduct, registered in the paintings through staining and marking, stitching and stretching. Depending on the residual color, this can evoke bruising or blushing, which are also passing states. Stretched over an unevenly scalloped frame, a small painting glows next to the quiet ochres and grays of other works, the colors of burlap, linen, and canvas. At least two paintings are made by reversing what was the back for the front; the folding and creasing visible at the edges of the canvas are now integrated as part of the work, together with any cutting and sewing. In the best of Jensen’s work these folds, found marks, or stitches are not transformed into something else; they are presented for what they are, in much the same way as Frank O’Hara described the role of material in Jackson Pollock’s (1912 – 1956) paintings of the late 1940s: “They were left intact and given back. Paint is paint, shells and wire are shells and wire, glass is glass, canvas is canvas.”


David Rhodes

David Rhodes is a New York-based artist and writer, originally from Manchester, UK.


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2011

All Issues