Michael Jenkins

Municipal Gallery

Michael Jenkins’ new work once again revives the sublime abstraction of Barnett Newman and others, but replaces their spirituality with commentary on homophobic laws and attitudes. The ironic revivals of abstraction have typically shown the strain inherent in forcing a simple sign to bear a complex message. Jenkins avoids the problem by grounding both his political critique and his art-historical reference in a single “real-world” motif: the geometric metal plates installed over peepholes punched in the walls of public bathroom stalls. By repeating this motif, he creates a visual system that evokes clearly his challenge to institutional attempts to manage or suppress homosexuality.

In Supreme 1-9, 1986, Jenkins paints monochrome stripes on nine small aluminum plates of various geometric shapes he mounts asymmetrically on black 8-by-10-inch mats in black commercial frames. The title and number of works in the series refer to the Supreme Court and its recent decision upholding states’ rights to legislate against sodomy, in a case that originated in Atlanta. The stripes recall prison bars as well as Daniel Buren’s stripes or (more ironically) Jasper Johns’ flags. Jenkins directs his critique against the Supreme Court (by depicting it as a bathroom stall) rather than against the laudable practice of covering peepholes. Another piece, Blow, 1986, is a wooden triangle, 21 inches on a side, painted with red and white stripes. The shape and title refer to Newman’s triangular abstraction Jericho, 1968–69, to the pink triangles with which Nazis branded homosexuals, and to a common term for a form of sodomy.

The third part of the show was an installation of six wooden panels arranged on a white wall: four six-inch squares covered by alternating stripes of paint (white, gold, red, black) and of wax, a single black 10-inch square, and one pair of six-inch black squares. The reference to Modernism, particularly to Kasimir Malevich, is complicated by the reference to a frequently vandalized and repaired bathroom wall.

Jenkins’ workmanship is deliberately rough (unpainted edges, obvious cutting marks) so it does not distract the viewer from the underlying text. The roughness and the condensation of his references to Modernism and politics recall the work of such other contemporary abstract artists as Sherrie Levine, but Jenkins’ message is grounded in a specific form of life and a particular political controversy. The specificity of his intentions deflects any criticism based on a contrast to the high finish of most Modernist abstraction, contrast such as that often made between Newman’s work and the Newmanesque paintings of Philip Taaffe. The roughness of the work, however, also emphasizes the fact that the process of thinking, planning, and condensing experience is more important than the finished works themselves.

As Benjamin Buchloh says in October 37, the revivals of monochrome abstraction abandon the idea of the autonomous art object in favor of a work seen as a fragment of a historical process. The insight applies to Jenkins, who recognizes that even geometry and abstract form are implicated in history. The real strength of his show, however, was its concrete critique, through a singularly apt visual system, of current political abuses.

Glenn Harper