New York

Neil Jenney

Goldowsky Gallery and Whitney Gallery

Neil Jenney’s new paintings—more accomplished than those included last year in the Whitney “Anti-Illusion: Procedures/Materials” exhibition—opt for vigorous hyperbole. Less about direct transcription for all that is directly transcriptive about them, they appear to be illustrations of illustrations. Tool and Sign, Wood and Saw, Cat and Dog, Girl and Doll, all these confrontation close-ups echo what we Americans immediately take for real news—Man bites Dog. If nature at one remove is discardable for Jenney, then nature is not really at the core of Jenney’s representationalism; Oldenburg is. The drawing is firm and crunchily florid in Oldenburg’s 18th-century manner. Each depiction is dazzling as it drowns in a sea of glaucous brushwork. More tossaway facility.

Jenney has declared himself both a painter and a sculptor or a kind of undivided entity torn between two species. The posture is not convincing since his sculptures are overpolemicized—though not clearly pro or con anything—and I wonder whether they are oblique studies for paintings; but the connections are withheld. Maybe Jenney’s sculpture is his painting’s lubricant.

In big terms, Jenney is a Westerner whereas the flimsy structure, which seems Jenney’s most idiosyncratic vein, prevaricates in an elegant Eastern manner which fails to completely impress by itself. The position gains interest however when viewed in connection with a group of other “Orientalists,” John Duff and Gary Stephen. In this connection I think it important to note that in Canal Street, Chinatown and Soho share a common border.

Three large units deal with Jenney’s arch method of self-location, first as an artist and then within art history. To begin with, there is the parody of Flavin. Perhaps this concerns the evolution of pictorial sculpture out of Minimalism—Smithson, Morris, Hesse, Ryman are other cases in point—but here guyed in slapstick. Flavin’s Homage to Tatlin is done up in a shambling negligent way—exposed pink wiring, light pulls, sloppily painted plugs. The parodistic streak seems paltry because as an end it is too facile and it is uncertain whether Jenney is sure of his humor.

The second Jenney is also confessional, but here the case is graver; he cannot break the emprise of Nauman. His a mer ica na shelves in red, white and blue neon script look to Nauman as the Tatlin parody looked to Flavin in quite another mode. On a higher shelf you get your local Irish-American pub pics of Daily News front pages. The Mets win the series.

The last group is in the orientalizing Constructivist vein—broken crates and other detritus. I take this to be the artist’s strongest manner even though this particular section seems very hastily pieced, nailed and wired together in the heat of the humor. And the humor is talking about Rauschenberg between 1955 and 1962, a connection which is given more likelihood through the fact that Jenney is now doing sets, as Rauschenberg before him, for Merce Cunningham.

In short, the sculptures take the count because of the artist’s elaborate covering ruses. There is an excess of levels of ambiguity and too little affirmative presence. The sculpture, interesting because of its negativism, ends up the clutter of the artist’s therapeutic exorcism of his bogies in recent art history.

Robert Pincus-Witten