New York

Bill Jensen

In what sense is Bill Jensen’s work a “throwback”? Instead of praising Jensen’s paintings, advocates of the work of Albert Pinkham Ryder, Marsden Hartley, Arthur Dove, and Georgia O’Keeffe, of which Jensen’s work has been termed a revival, would conspire to bury it. True, Jensen has burrowed down under the site of their art, content never to break through to open, revitalizing air. Note Ancestors, 1984–85, wherein a disrupted mystical hexagram blooms under a mound covered with crosses, fully flowered and with no ambition to see the sun or stars. Thematically, too, Jensen’s vision of the earth, like that of his predecessors, is one of saurian weariness and encumberment, especially in a painting like Hunger, 1984–85. Under its burden of peaks and valleys, the earth, like a scaly, primitive life form, lumbers across (or invents) the horizon of these canvases. With its usually barbed perimeter and gaping, vulnerable interior, this hunk of rock on which we live (or is it the moon?) becomes in Jensen’s hands a “beast with two backs,” which segues into a heaving natal struggle presented either in progress or just completed. The result is a creature inseparable from its environment. This apparent belief in evolutionary stasis is a perfect corollary for the historical position of Jensen’s work.

What is at odds with this is the artist’s use of triumphant radial lines, as if to announce the contrary—that something new has occurred, some momentous event. In apotheosis, in The Lamb, 1977–84, and Denial, 1983–86, the central form virtually flexes its muscles in a display of transcendence. What had been hidden under water or soil—possibly a microorganism, certainly a form once small in relation to the background vista—looms suddenly large, charging over the hill, down out of the sky, up from under the earth. The cilia around these images communicate brilliance in the same way as in traditional pictures of the star of Bethlehem. That the submerged geometry of Ancestors could be an inchoate mogen dovid (shield, or star, of David) gives one an uncertain sense of religious allegory. One suspects that it is to this illustrative imposition that Jensen’s supporters are really responding.

The lines of radiance, and the near/far dialectic on which Jensen’s paintings rely, make it appropriate that in Kepler, 1984–85, he should invoke the name of the astronomer who established the laws for discovering the focal lengths of single lenses and the magnifying power of telescopes. What one also remembers about Johannes Kepler, however, is one of his few mistakes—his belief that comets never returned, an error Jensen implicitly corrects. Jensen’s intimation of eternal recurrence may be unassuming, but it unfortunately leaves his work vulnerable to manipulation by an audience interested mainly in a return to simpler times.

Jeanne Silverthorne