New York

Michael Jenkins

Jay Gorney Modern Art

One of the drawings in Michael Jenkins’ recent show is a kind of prisoner’s diary. Groups of marks, consisting of four verticals and a canceling fifth, cover roughly the upper two-thirds of a sheet of paper, suggesting a sentence commuted or in some way cut short. Or perhaps someone simply got fed up with marking time. The marks, like virtually everything in this show, were realized in Jenkins’ signature high-key yellow. Yellow signifies quarantine and the isolation of disease, but it is also associated with sensationalism, with emotive exploitation. At the end of the last century, the color was appropriated by those who wished to invert this symbolism. Though deliberately titled as a reference to cheap French novels, Aubrey Beardsley’s Yellow Book, 1894–96, presented an estheticized decadence very different from the brand suggested by the title. Similarly, Jenkins turns our expectations on their heads.

One of the drawings here depicts a juggling skeleton, another a skull in a party hat, its yellow polka-dot pattern echoed in the drawing’s background. A third features seven party hats surrounded by streamers. Some of the streamers have been erased, “disappeared” like the absent socks in a previous drawing, their unmatched partners left unaccompanied. The directness of Jenkins’ work is disarming, yet it comes without an indignant sense of moral righteousness. Insofar as it constitutes a response to AIDS, it is heartfelt rather than didactic. Although it is about disease, death, and loss, it does not speak only of them. The world of juvenile irresponsibility, adventure, and wonder, even if it might seem a domain now only habitable in the imagination, has not been destroyed or entirely negated by present circumstances.

The upper gallery was an adventure playground for boys of all ages in which a giant abacus stood as tall as a person; a model fort with crenellated towers sat on the floor against one wall, and two shower cubicles of the basic sort you would find at summer camp stood side by side.The shower heads (on a watering can, they would be called “roses”) were at the correct angle, but there is no doubt that they were drooping. A small shed stood on stilts, suggesting an outhouse, a hide, or a “goon tower.” The door was pierced in the shapes of a crescent moon, and stars patterned the wall behind it.

Jenkins’ objects are homemade, which is to say that even those constructed from cardboard—the fort in this exhibition or, for example, the previously shown felt garlands of blooms—are carefully fashioned rather than shoddily or provisionally made. It’s hard to talk about Jenkins’ childhood space without resorting to gawky words like “innocent” and “carefree,” but the work demands more of one than that. It is not that the grown up world defeats the experience these words attempt to designate; or, if it does. Jenkins insists that that is exactly what it shouldn’t be allowed to do.

A curious effect of this construction of the imaginative space of childhood is that the impulse to implicate the works in adult culture, by viewing them primarily through the extensive mesh of references they suggest, is quieted. The fort sits on the floor, not because it is a piece of modern sculpture but because it is a toy. I would not be the first, confronted by the latest, small addition to Jenkins’ series of rafts, to enumerate a list of precursors, ranging from Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, 1884, to Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa, 1817. But these associations seem, in large part, to go to work in advance of the more immediate physical impact of the sculpture.

In a sense, the ubiquitous, invasive presence of disease might act to mark the playful freedoms of childhood as being out of bounds. But Jenkins, in presenting these freedoms themselves via his objects and installations, accomplishes a complex retrieval; firstly, by denying their immunity, and secondly, by insisting with poetic force that they must not be forgotten.

Michael Archer