Bill Jensen, BLUE CUPOLA, 202021. Oil on linen, triptych, 59 x 120 1/4 inches. Courtesy Cheim & Read, New York.
On ViewCheim & Read
January 20–April 2, 2022
Bill Jensen’s new body of work, largely made in the last three years, is displayed in all four rooms of Cheim & Read gallery in Chelsea. These paintings embody both the wisdom and maturity of a sage, while maintaining the energy and vulnerability of new life.
In the first room one can at once recognize Jensen’s particular relationship to Mannerist and Baroque periods in BLUE CUPOLA (2020–21), where muscular, bulbous humanoid shapes are precariously joined together as a triptych in exuberant, heroic angels or demons guarding the baby blue heavens. This work has roots in his 2015 show with the gallery, where one might recall the triptych Transgressions (2011–14), with a linear painting style alluding to the Michelangelo-esque musculature. In the recent work, these amorphous bodies have accumulated layers of textured, vibrant, and transparent colors transgressing into a chromatic realm imbued with both colore e disegni. In this triptych there is an Indian yellow solar shape floating in the central panel looking straight at us, probingly. A construction of cross-cultural symbols, the shape evokes the evil eye, the third eye, the yin and yang, icon painting, a spiral knot in plywood, or a target: all suggesting that another dimension or realm may exist past this mystical point of concentrated hot energy and color. This recurring form in his current work directly points to Jensen’s polycultural influences, particularly his admiration for classical Chinese poetry and art and his pursuit of Eastern philosophy and thought. His early painting from the 1970s, particularly Redon (1976–77), which is in the back room of the gallery, is the onset of these fantastical geometric forms.
As we traverse into the second room, this curious circular shape becomes more pronounced in VASTNESS/FLOWING (2020–21) and STILLNESS/FLOWING (2021). In the same room there are two diptychs on the south wall: WITH CHILD II (2019–20) and SISTA/SISTA (2020–21), where we can readily see the arousing flow evoking aqueous environments, and painterly gestures swimming in currents of violet, magenta, sap green, dioxin red, alizarin orange, and Indian yellow, among other unnamable colors. The fluidity of the additive and subtractive brush and palette knife strokes are submerging and emerging from the surface. In FATHER, DAUGHTERS (2020–21) and WHEEL RIM COMPASS V (FOR WANG WEI) (2021), the texture of the paint surfaces are familiar to urbanites accustomed to seeing scratches and graffiti on limestone walls and mortar bursting through the seams of our imperfect urban sidewalks. Circular shapes are left on the surface through the casual print of a paint container or a contemplative cup of coffee. These are in conversation with the bold circle shapes floating on seven of the paintings in this room.
Jensen is part of a long line of artists who honor the man-made craft with the tools of the trade, from brushes, palette knives, to mason’s trowels which uncover the medium’s potential through textured surfaces of flattened out impasto, dry brushstrokes, drips of paint, smudges, and scratches, which is unique in today’s fast-paced manufacturing and economy of outsourcing labor. The handmade paints ground from pigments come from a deep personal understanding of color and alchemy developed through endless experimentation along with his ongoing dialogues with paint specialists and artist peers. Jensen’s palette is evocative of nature in its full spectrum and recognizable as his own in the intuitive choices of hue combinations. Similar to Michelangelo’s trusting his sense of material, which guided his vision as a sculptor to uncover a stone’s potential into a sculpture, thus Jensen adopts a similar ethos for oil paint as his medium, where colors move like light on water.
The third room reveals perhaps the most direct reference to the man-made through the artist’s isolated handprints, appearing to scale in the following works: BITTER CHANT XI (2020–21), BITTER CHANT VII (2019–20), and BITTER CHANT VIII (2019-20). Prehistoric cave paintings remind us that handprint marks are some of the first traces of the urgency of human creation and expression of authorship. With the turbulent movement of bold tangerine, ruby red, royal blue, and green, a molten lava of colors preside over vivacious abstract crevasses, falling, and rising, worthy of the palette observed in Venetian painting. One exception, ORACLE BONES (FIRE SPIRIT) (2017-20), has one surprising collage element: a piece of paper with a graphite line drawing, mirroring the work’s central amorphous painted shape. The whole painting brings our attention to this strange suspended shape, evoking a sensation of floating, or perhaps stillness, caught in between these two worlds, which is the prevailing premise in many of Jensen’s works. We notice cracks from the paint film breaking on the painting’s ground, an indication of the passage of time combined with ghostly traces, like fireworks of pink, blue, green, yellow, and black. Jensen’s sensitive understanding of oil paint and its alchemy calls forth an artist he greatly admires, Albert Pinkham Ryder, who experimented tirelessly with the medium, disregarding rules about conservation and innovated painting in a way like no other American artist. The all over gesture in Jensen’s work also follows in the heritage of American Abstract Expressionism of the mid-twentieth century, but rather than raw, violent Western strokes, Jensen’s work has more affinities with the dual speed and slowness of Eastern painting. It searches for the energy in the cosmos, which passes through the artist like a vessel, rather than expressing an inner struggle of the self.
The last room attains that stillness coming from wisdom and lived experience. HUSHED MOUNTAIN (FOR RON GORCHOV) (2020–21) is completely dark, and resonates as two handprints tremble down the canvas, leaving a sticky, oily trace, like snail mucin. The energy is dense, purple, brown, and unnamable, as if searching in the dark. This mysterious black-purple surface is quintessentially Jensen, begun in 1999 after he lived through a difficult period of loss. Though Jensen knows how to create textured surfaces, he is also the master of smooth, supple, and elegant surfaces like DARK ENIGMA (2019–20), where the upper half of the painting has been scratched off from its dark violet satin exterior, contrasting the density of the lower half, which remains thick and oily like the shimmer in a pool of gasoline. The triptych ABSENCE, NO GATE, GATEWAY (2014–16) has a simplicity to it, light comes through in a rose streak and a subtle gray mark on the large white expanse, like a fog obstructing the view of a horizon. It is still. It is flowing—always in between.