New York

Bill Jensen

Mary Boone Gallery | Uptown

The coloristic nuance and variousness of handling—from the spontaneous to the highly wrought—in Bill Jensen’s recent abstractions seem to render the physical evolution of the paintings palpable. In Boy, 1997–98, a loosely triangular arrangement of wide, watery blue strokes and several smooth blue arcs seem to have been applied in swift, unrestrained gestures. Meanwhile, the work’s whitish background retains an almost archaic glaze that one senses is the result of Jensen’s having worked that surface more intensely, scraping and rubbing it to a hoary polish. Then there’s the distorted geometrical form in the top half of A Few Small Nips, 1995–98, whose severe crimson strokes resemble dried blood, and near which is a light tan passage recalling wet, mottled plaster. Below, some glossy, hand-size swirls the color of avocado meat appear to float over a burnished fusion of chalk and rust.

The either/or contrasts—between watery, raw, or scabby textures and areas that seem the result of laborious finishing, or even to be varnished or weathered—are doubled by thematic allusions suggested by titles such as Heaven & Hell, 1997–98, a work whose pale upper half initially appears flat and uninflected. A closer look reveals a scratchy, porous-seeming surface. Blue primer and linen poke out from between wide streaks of silvery-gray and white paint applied with a knife, and some areas appear to have been powdered with the dust of finely ground pearls. Camouflaged at first, this surface gradually delivers up a vulnerable delicacy. The lower blue portion of the painting bears its own subtle features. Immediately below the horizontal line dividing the canvas is a mark left by a straightedge—a rather surprising element, given that the work’s forms are generally organic. Is this geometric intrusion one of Hell’s expressions, meant to contrast with the cloudy, fragile heaven of the rest of the painting?

One of the largest and strongest paintings on view was Have and Have Not, 1998. The arching line that divides its arid, mustard-colored upper field and whitish lower segment causes the entire work to seem to bulge off the canvas. Border Line, 1996–98, boasts another estranging effect; here, blues, yellows, and oranges appear plastic in contrast to the more muted, tertiary palette that predominated in this show while the drips that form a stringy crisscrossing pattern in Of the Flesh, 1996–98, suggest that this work was at least partially realized upside down.

All the works share formal elements. They are more or less distinctly divided horizontally, and four canvases feature forms that resemble collapsed scaffolding. But most distinctive is that each hue in these works—whether inspired by mineral, plastic, or organic counterparts—seems to aspire to its own texture. It is as if chromatic inflection were accompanied by an equivalent physical metamorphosis, some chemical transformation—rusting, eroding, melting—that brings it into ever clearer distinction. These paintings seem to incorporate the passage of time into their appearance, and this is fitting, because it is perhaps only over the span of the two or three years it took the artist to complete most of these works that such disparate textures, tones, and themes could be brought to inhabit them with such severe elegance.

Tom Breidenbach