New York

Neil Jenney

Oil And Steel

Neil Jenney is perhaps the most esthetically brilliant conceptualist commentator on American reality and the experience of modernity working today. The problem with the traditional conceptual art that Jenney surpassed was not that it eschewed the object for language and idea, but that its language and idea were often trivial. It did not understand how objects could become allegorical emblems—how they could acquire profound conceptual import through the character of their objectness. Traditional conceptualists thought they were purifying art in the name of a more vital destiny than that offered by the market and the museum; in fact, they threw the baby out with the bathwater, because in clarifying art they denied it any life-world goal, undermining its concreteness. Jenney’s work retains a core premise of conceptual art, that of the linguistic translatability of all objects and images, but it locks into a very concrete structure of meaning: it demonstrates the unexpected entropic effects of modern dynamism, particularly as they are revealed in everyday American reality. Jenney’s art is about the subtle stagnancy that modernity has become, as revealed through the banality of its artifacts and its effect on nature.

Post-Modernism has reversed the early Modernist dismissal of rhetoric, which now seems the only means by which art can persuade us of its own validity, the very method of its power to stimulate belief and thought as well as appearance. Jenney is one of the greatest artist rhetoricians around, and perhaps the major rhetorical device he uses is synecdoche. He allegorizes the synecdochic fragment, the fragment that stands in for the whole, through an absolute scrupulousness in the rendering of its residue of subject matter; the preoccupation with detail in Jenney’s paintings is so intense as to be on the verge of vertigo and insanity. Allegory also comes with the elaborate, chunky black framing and sharply focused lighting, which make the work stand out ecstatically, as if in some weirdly artificial epiphany. The insistence on the objectness of the frame, and the way the light turns the image itself into an object, suggest an almost tauntingly subliminal morbidness. It is as though Jenney were daring one to “feel” something about the feelingless, abbreviated—aborted?—scenes he presents. It is as though their inexpressiveness were lead waiting to be turned into quicksilver. In comparison with the ordinariness of his subject matter and the extraordinary, “objective” way it is presented, the frame and the light acquire a fictional character, and their fictionality in turn reinforces the images power of evocation. Fictional objectness, Jenney seems to suggest, is more of the essence of Modernism than fictional imagery.

A Jenney picture has an air of extraordinary inertia, as though the objects in the scene—the scene itself—were not to be deflected from their fixed paths in space. So highly focused is the work, so carefully mounted—staged—that one feels that any movement would disturb the transmission of its invisible message. There is a wavelength to a Jenney picture; one doesn’t just look at the work, one tries to tune in to it, for it exists on a very narrow band. The harder one looks at these images—and they generate enormous expectancy through their extraordinary stillness—the more one feels compelled to listen to them, to hear them out, to be patient until they finally open up. Their silence has the old laconic flavor of authentic Modernist silence—of the silence that abstract art once had a monopoly on. It is all the more trenchant for the way Jenney has embedded it in social material and social fact—or embedded them in it.

Just how silent a Jenney image can be, how much one must strain to see and hear it, how much it can exist just below the threshold of ordinary quick-glance seeing and ordinary quick-meaning message, is shown by the small Portrait of Willy Eisenhart, 1980. It is not just that this work, bathed in framing bright light, is delicate and withdrawn, but that it seems to actively resist one’s visual appropriation of it, to exist in a noli me tangere state of apprehension. In other works the high-relief black frame keeps one away, forcing the stronger image to recede, to become oddly subliminal, which only adds to its power to represent inchoate, unconscious import emblematically. Jenney’s form of synecdoche has the same effect; the very finite part stands for a subliminal whole that seems infinitely extensible, and distant. In Acid Story, 1983–84, which describes the effect of acid rain on forests, the fragment of landscape not only implies much more than it conveys, but becomes potent for the unconscious through its ultraclarity and intense framing. It is like a shard of meaning as well as of a scene; looking at it, one feels as though one were in a museum looking at excavated objects, relics of a dead civilization, their significance obsolete. This effect is especially pointed in the Magritte-like The Modern Era, 1971–72, whose end products are a banal “moderne” kitchen chair and a matter-of-fact attitude to and use of enormous (electric) power, set against and within a blankness. The cul-de-sac expressionlessness of it all is deceptive; the sense of void and muteness—of the sublime become introverted and pessimistic rather than extroverted and optimistic, as in American Urbania, 1975—is like a long fuse on a powerful explosive. Or perhaps the bang has already occurred, and this is the whimpering end result, the way the world after the apocalypse really looks—like living death. Implied human presence is really not needed; the nothingness speaks for it.

Donald Kuspit