Olav Christopher Jenssen

Olav Christopher Jenssen’s series of works entitled “Lack of Memory,” 1990-92, shows this Berlin-based Norwegian artist to be an endlessly inventive and imaginative painter. At first sight this exhibition of 40 identically sized paintings—selected from the 42 works that comprise the series—looks almost like a group show of a small school of painters. It actually represents an encyclopedic summing-up of the variety of techniques at the command of the abstract painter, whose work patently has no place within any geometric language.

Jenssen pours, squeezes, stains, and splashes paint onto his large-format canvases. He covers them with organic forms and patterns, adding smears, blotches, and scribbles. His palette ranges from ethereal grays to severe black and white, and on to unusual combinations of secondary colors—orange, green, and purple. A typical feature of Jenssen’s paintings are the microscopelike images, multiplying and evaporating like chemical or biological processes of growth and dissolution. As a result, the paintings give more the impression of just coming into being than of having reached their final, permanent form.

Yet, Jenssen’s works do not seem to be linked with nature so much as with artistic discourse. These often copiously layered, painted surfaces conceal references to a substantial portion of the recent history of abstract art. As a result, seen in its entirety, this series of paintings becomes virtually a parody of “cultural nomadism,” taking the idea of the artist’s stylistic wanderings through the landscape of culture—in this case painting—to its logical extreme.

The title, “Lack of Memory,” suggests a conscious desire to find a way out of the regions normally accessible to (art-historical) memory and into the open field of play that lies between languages. When faced with these paintings, there can be no talk of kinship with Surrealism, with automatism, or of a descent into the unconscious something, which the series’ title also rules out. Rather, Jenssen’s practice involves a kind of trans- or multilinguistic “babble,” in which the artist’s attentiveness, his rapid and acute recognition of useful accidents, caprices, and hunches, plays a key role.

The kaleidoscopic profusion and playful primitivism of Jenssen’s paintings tempt us to contemplate a new view of abstract painting, and also suggests a possible way out of the formal and spiritual dead end in which it repeatedly finds itself. The recurring problems of abstraction may well be bound up with precisely the high-Modernist, and in many respects Modernist, values it has tenaciously held on to. These include the unity, purity, and recognizability of its visual language, and its aspiration to spirituality, to perfection and the absolute, as antitheses of imperfect, everyday materiality—aspirations that have characterized both the work of the pioneers of abstraction and its later masters.

The numerous paths in Jenssen’s art represent a distinct alternative to the one-way, ascending path of his predecessors. His paintings have turned their backs on the orthodoxies of Modernism, but they also take a highly skeptical view of the liberating power of post-Modern irony. Like Cy Twombly—perhaps his closest exemplar—Jenssen works outside these two poles. He makes “dirty” art that has the taste of life; art situated right at the heart of the multicultural landscape where the theories that informed analyses of art have been razed. It is precisely this abandonment of “elevated” goals and purity of expression that may offer a way out for abstraction.

Timo Valjakka

Translated from the Finnish by Michael Gamer.