Bill Jensen can be a difficult artist to love. Anxious and phenomenal, the work of this Brooklyn-based painter often goes down as smoothly as a gulp of Campari. But in Floating World, his current solo show at Yoshii Gallery, Jensen has dared to ease his hand and decompress his compositions. With a title based on the Japanese term Ukiyo—which means “floating world” and is a homophone for “sorrowful world”—the exhibition is a pleasant, if unsurprising, variation on the anti-stylistic, intensely personal Zen and Taoist-inspired abstractions that Jensen has been making for decades. Here, the agitation and almost suffocating density found in earlier works, from “Deadhead” (1986) to “The Temptation of St Anthony” (2007-08), has been replaced by a spare and atmospheric kind of tension, accompanied by a welcome sense of release.
On ViewYoshii Gallery
October 31 – December 21, 2013
Floating World is made up of a comfortable array of paintings on canvas and on paper, the latter of which are framed as diptychs and triptychs. Most of the pieces hail from larger, on-going series with titles like “Drunken Brush,” “Oracle Bones,” and “Passare da Bernardo,” suggesting that Jensen has indeed relinquished a modicum of artistic control to the more liberating agents of revelry, fate, time, and even death, to both his great advantage and this viewer’s great relief. The resulting ink on paper works are meditative and vigorous, displaying a masterful command of medium. Like details torn from an Arshile Gorky painting and bled of all their color, the brindled washes and serpentine whorls balloon out, drifting and dialoguing across the rough-cut edges of each page. Some, including “Yugen #7” (2013), evoke stormy cloudscapes or nebulae, while others, such as “Ch’an Bones Scroll IV” (2011), are more reserved, embracing the traditionally Eastern employ of the negative. The images feel painfully temporary and somehow true, retaining the primordial ebb and flow of the internal monologue, the behaviors of a calligraphy free from language.
The few works on canvas are of a similar but sturdier breed, grounded in heavy layering, more discernable textures, broader brushwork, and the introduction of a limited range of purple and rose hues. “Images of a Floating World (Walk of Woe)” (2008) is especially striking: in the context of the exhibition, Jensen’s pairing of bold violet with his favored murky eggshell white is a surprise, one that injects an energizing breath of Pop into the picture.
Even more so than the works on paper, these paintings are at once careful and careless—each stroke, scribble, and drip lovingly crafted alongside a handful of impetuous details that keep the overall image from becoming too precious. For example, “Oracle Bones IV” (2013) is a work of quiet complexity, simultaneously bright and brooding; the thick off-white and dusty mauve form a gauzy patina that just barely covers the earthier bruised and Rothko-dark layer that peeks through from underneath. But, frankly, the painting would be boring—just another nice and appropriately vulnerable image—if not for the fact that its surface appears to have been used as a coffee table in a previous life, leaving it adorned with a series of soft, seemingly inadvertent partial rings. Without these marks, the piece would have fallen flat, taken itself too seriously. Instead, “Oracle” suggests that it is important but not too important, as if to say: “Yes, I am a painting, but I might just as easily have been a place mat.”
Whether Jensen imagines these paintings to be of the Floating World, or to be reaching for it as it hovers just beyond his grasp, remains unclear. But perhaps in the case of Ukiyo, the getting and the grasping of the concept only come from loosening up and letting go, which this artist has realized both visually and metaphysically. In the end, Jensen has managed to point his work in the direction of something profound, and I for one am curious to see where he goes from here.