New York

Bill Jensen

Mary Boone Gallery | Uptown

With his relatively diminutive landscape abstractions, Bill Jensen protracts what might be described as a neo-easel tradition. His works recently found a home in a space originally designed for the pomp and circumstance proper to the ’80s redux of heroic-scale painting. This was an admittedly strange and awkward fit that even the gallery seemed to be self-conscious about. The space was subtly repainted in off-white, perhaps in order to afford a more compatible ambience, a “designer” atmosphere for intimate esthetic encounters undoubtedly meant to make the presence of Jensen’s intensely and insistently sober paintings seem less incongruous with this monumental architectural context.

This unavoidable mismatch worked to make the paintings seem all the more pathetic, helpless, if not insignificant. Simply put, they could not hold the space. It’s hard to imagine that Jensen produced these works with this unforgiving space in mind, and if he did, then it might have been with the tacit purpose of ignoring it for subversive ends. But ignoring a space—or refusing to acknowledge its special features—won’t make it disappear.

For a brief moment in the early ’80s, Jensen’s language of swirling, quasi-abstract, symbolic forms held a certain amount of charm for me, and even though I could not bring myself to buy into the artist’s apparent commitment to reviving a sort of mystical expressionism, I nevertheless did find the paintings’ tautly rendered structures and implosive dynamics rather pleasing. Jensen had an ability to do provocative things with the tricky and tense relationship between the “internalized” conditions of form/shape and qualities of scale. But that was a brief and shining moment, and since then Jensen has seemingly lost whatever edge he might have had; now, the work appears to be stuck in the mire of tautology.

There is an almost cantankerous quality to these recent abstracted landscape works. Uninviting in their drabness, they look as if the Ashcan school had gone abstract-pastoral. Produced over the past four years, the works, ranging in size from 29-by-24 inches to 36-by-44 inches, offer a color sensibility that might be described as “sullied pretty.” It would not be inappropriate to speak of a kind of mannered, squalid beauty here, but I’m not sure if it’s an achievement or a failure. Surfaces are worked and reworked to such a degree that the signs of formal procedure in certain areas become ossified as an unpleasant impasto crust.

Undoubtedly, there will be some who can find something eloquent to say about Jensen’s “brooding” sensibility, and who will claim to have located a new kind of beauty here, but there is little that could redeem these works from their state of enervation. I would be happier to drag Milton Avery out of storage.

Joshua Decter