San Francisco

Clay Jensen

San Francisco Museum Of Modern Art And Bruce Velick Gallery

In honoring sculptor Clay Jensen as the sole recipient of their annual Art Award, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s adjunct Society for the Encouragement of Contemporary Art—perhaps inadvertently—challenged the current hegemony of expressionistic painting. Considered less reactively, they recognized the deepening sensibility of a younger artist whose painted steel constructions synthesize planar color-field abstractions of harmonious beauty with metaphoric allusions to urban experience. The work’s hybrid format is expressively original and distinctly classic in spirit.

City Slicker, 1983, dominated the Museum’s show in its formal strength and multiple references. As in much of Jensen’s work of the last few years, a large rectangular plate of painted steel, with a welded composition on each side, stands on a section of horizontal, darkly patined I-beam. The relationship suggests a double-sided painting on a pedestal. On one side of the dusky yellow, deliberately marred plate a large irregular rectangle of gleaming brown sidewalk decking (used to cover sub-sidewalk freight elevators) extends up from the middle of the bottom edge; the obverse bears a single perpendicular section of I-beam.

Both highly ordered arrangements require scrutiny to bring out their surface effects and precise balances; both exude an earthbound stability and promote a contemplative mood. That demeanor ironically contradicts the image of an overdressed, pseudo-sophisticated “city slicker” connoted by the work’s title, and self-reflexively comments on Jensen’s transition since his move to the Bay area from Utah in 1977. But the imagery also draws on more public levels of common experience in its use of industrial steel and the gesturally scratched, worn-looking yellow surface to represent “city” architecture, while the hue itself whimsically recalls the bright yellow of a rubber-raincoat “slicker.”

The concurrent gallery show revealed the development of Jensen’s ideas since Hollis Street, 1981, which juxtaposes a small bronze casting of a tree branch against monochromatic industrial steel, evoking a more conflictive situation than that of City Slicker. The enclosed verticals of several very recent pieces suggest a pitched-roof house; the smaller of these constructions are the less successful, since the reduced scale does not allow play of nuance or field and the work seems like a fussy miniature.

Walk into the Night, 1983, suggests mysterious domestic interiors and also displays Jensen’s broadening skill as a colorist. A horizontal cordovan-colored base is textured with short gray squiggles of welding bead; the reflective black plate that stands on it has a stepped upper edge suggesting a skyline, and on one side a vertical beam punctured by a “window” is gesturally painted with repeated yellow lines. Almost resembling a stage set, the composition is more truly sculptural than Jensen’s earlier, two-dimensional, planar constructions, and the more dramatically contrasting colors and looser play of shapes and textures reveal a bolder tension. The adventurousness of Walk into the Night, produced since the announcement of the SECA award, demonstrates the additional boon of expanded confidence accruing to an award that “encourages” a younger artist.

Suzann Boettger