There was a time in modern music when the role of the artist changed from being the custodian of cultural knowledge to something more of an autobiographer. We might choose that moment in the late sixties when Lou Reed abandoned the writing of pop ditties about boys and girls, to focus on his own, more personal interests, like boys and girls and heroin.In other art forms this sea change was happening -- in comedy, where once jokes were shared, un-authored, between performers in Vegas, the Catskills, and New York City clubs, Lenny Bruce made comedy suddenly personal -- talking about race, politics, cops, censorship, and heroin. It is tempting to suggest that in painting this shift had happened decades earlier, particularly in that sub-category of painting called "abstraction." Once artists like Kandinsky, Rodchenko, Dove, and O’Keefe had looked for universal symbols -- a folk art, as it were -- for the collective unconscious. Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, and Mark Rothko, in particular, overturned all that -- with Pollock famously eschewing commonality by stating "I am Nature."
It is of some importance to note that while all artists probably became aware of these changes, there were some, like Bob Dylan, who sought to give voice to their own stories, while at the same time acknowledging the deep history of their medium. Dylan began as a folk musician, in the tradition of Arlo Guthrie, and transitioned into the premier autobiographical storyteller of his generation, yet he never completely abandoned the idea of a collective musical unconscious. Bill Jensen, whose career has been devoted to maintaining the ideas of abstract painting, may represent, in a period where we have artists who create "zombie formalist" paintings, a folk tradition in painterly abstraction more akin to Dylan than Reed.
Jensen strives for an ego-less, unpretentious practice devoid of preconceived outcomes, surrendering to the painting process, allowing it to determine the path and destination of his work. His intensive layering and reworking of the canvas results in highly tactile and seductive surfaces: paint is plastered on, scraped off, seeped, dredged, brushed, and smoothed until a certain "presence" is achieved; he attempts to create paintings which, like self-contained beings, affect the world around them -- a characteristic he refers to as "emotional density." In the work shown at Cheim & Read, Jensen riffs on subjects taken from Chinese poetry, Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel, the icons of Andrei Rublev, and contemporaries, like Jasper Johns and Carroll Dunham.
The first room in the exhibition holds a mini-exhibition-within-the-exhibition, containing small, exquisitely painted variations on Michelangelo. "Study for Right Hand Panel of Transgressions" (2013) and "Study for Left Hand Panel of Transgressions" (2013) morph Michelangelo's Laocoön-like figures into a writing mass of intestinal shapes à la Dunham, against a harsh orange ground reminiscent of fifties-era Francis Bacon. The biomorphic shapes twist and turn, seeming to wrestle, fuck, and fight all at the same time. Jensen’s use of the triptych also reminds us of Bacon, who used the classic format to create oblique narratives, while heightening the strangeness of the abstract figure.
It is in the second gallery, though, we see Jensen the folk artist. In "Double Sorrow +1 (GREY SCALE)" (2014–15), "Message" (2011–2014), and "Louhan (Violet II)" 2013–2014, Jensen combines elements of Johns’s stenciled, black-and-white puzzles and handprints; Julian Schnabel’s signature purple scratched splatters and biomorphic white blobs; and Basquiat’s drop cloths covered in studio detritus, coffee cup stains, and smudges. It is not to say that Jensen’s interest in working from the memory of nature, as he has so ably done in the past, is gone entirely -- "Single Ch'u" (2014) is pure, vintage Jensen -- but rather he has begun to absorb the memory of culture, a shared painterly culture, into his process. In contrast to younger painters like Joe Bradley or Oscar Murillo who merely ape a vapid simulacrum of abstract painting’s vocabulary, Jensen incorporates a larger and deeper understanding of the history of his chosen style. If it weren’t so seemingly pejorative a term, we might be tempted to say that Jensen performs a generic form of abstraction. If one is tempted to find some reductive form of criticism of these new works, or Jensen's strategy as a whole, and attempt to dismiss it as out of step with the moment, one would do well to go, quickly, and listen to Stevie Ray Vaughn's version of Hendrix’s cover of Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower." - Bradley Rubenstein
Cheim & Read is at 547 West 25th Street, New York, NY 10001.
Mr. Rubenstein is a painter, story teller, and smart culture aficionado.