Jeffrey Dennis

Artspace London

Art is most likely to touch on something real just at the point where it doesn’t look like other art, and Jeffrey Dennis’s keeps looking less and less like anybody’s but his own. In the past, Dennis has attached three-dimensional objects to his paintings or simply done the paintings on three-dimensional objects; situated them on the floor as well as on the wall; and done them on canvases shaped like TV screens or on seemingly irrational sequences of abutted rectangles that meander aimlessly across a wall. Here he sticks to the conventional wall-hung rectangle as well as to a single kind of ground: a dense field of roughly drawn, overlapping circles, which can at times resemble pebbles, at other times bubbles. Yet canny handling of color and composition allows the artist to seemingly reinvent his formula each time.

Of course, Robert Rauschenberg and his “flatbed picture plane,” as Leo Steinberg described it, are the manifest precedent for the way Dennis treats the surface of the painting: as that across which various self-contained pictorial elements can be moved at will or as a “work surface” on which things can be placed both for immediate or eventual use, to be studied but also forgotten and half-buried under later accretions. But a Dennis painting never feels like it’s just recapitulating one of Rauschenberg’s gestures. For one thing, it always looks quintessentially English, as a Rauschenberg looks ineffably American. That difference lies not only in the content of the imagery—the three inset vignettes in Funny Bones (Death of a Comic), 2002, derive from a Benny Hill comedy, and the narrow white van seen in The Delivery, 2002, is a familiar sight on any English city street—but in tone: Dennis’s paintings are as understated and wry as Rauschenberg’s are brash and literal.

The most telling difference between the two artists has to do with the sense of time in their work, which may be accounted for less by their nationalities than by the fact that one artist was born in 1925 and the other in 1958. For Rauschenberg, what’s important about the mode of perception captured in his classic paintings and combines is its newness, so everything is imbued with a sense of simultaneous presence—even when he incorporates an image from an old painting, it doesn’t seem to refer to the past. For an artist of Dennis’s time, the flatbed picture plane, though maintaining its usefulness, must evoke a certain nostalgia—yet it’s also a primitive harbinger of the virtual space of computer interfaces, which are directly pictured in The Late Shift, 2001. The very form now harbors memories and anticipations. Therefore Dennis’s paintings contain not just multiple spaces but also multiple tempos—passages in which time seems infinitely drawn out and flushed with ennui, like an irregular but uneventful surface seen in nearly microscopic close-up; and other passages that seem to strike the eye in a flash. You think you can lose yourself in these paintings, but sooner or later they will pull you up short.

Barry Schwabsky