Neil Jenney, "Recent Work," Nov. 6, 2008-Jan. 24, 2009, at Barbara Mathes Gallery, 22 East 80th Street, New York, N.Y. 10076
Neil Jenney’s exhibition couldn’t come at a better moment. As a bloated art industry quivers, it’s the right time for his bracing intellectual clarity and awesome skill. An obstinate American quirkiness infuses everything he’s done, starting back in his elementary school art class in Westfield, Mass. That’s when he decided to reject photographic verisimilitude as a goal. Since then the 63-year-old artist has methodically worked his way through various gambits in his self-declared quest for what he calls "foto-free realism." Defiant of trends, this subversive survivor has cannily navigated a unique path through the contemporary art world for the past four decades.
Here’s the background: In the mid-1960s, only a few weeks after he arrived in New York City from Boston, his youthful environmental sculpture brought Jenney to the attention of art dealer Richard Bellamy, who agreed to represent him and hired him as his gallery assistant when Bellamy was sharing Noah Goldowsky’s space on Madison Avenue. It turned out that sculpture sales were slow. Jenney, no slouch, says he figured out pretty fast that he’d better make something for the wall if he ever wanted to sell any work.
So he began making paintings, abandoning opaque surfaces for transparency, constructing brushy, deliberately messy, contrarian work that cheekily challenged both Pop Art and the vapid assumptions of Photorealism. (Bellamy showed some of the paintings in 1970 but at first didn’t like them much. He allowed the resourceful artist to market them cheerfully to the streams of other dealers and collectors visiting his loft).
As a ringleader of what Marcia Tucker in 1978 would later christen "Bad Painting," Jenney’s strategic intent to reinvigorate painting also was designed to undermine the cool hegemony of Minimalism, which he did with fierce visual allegories and dryly witty visual puns in such works as Sawn and Saw (1969).
His rejection of the photograph as a replacement or a crutch for painting has been chronic and resolute. (When I was at the current show at Barbara Mathes Gallery one of the paintings even had a tiny black-and-white "foto-free" sticker on it.) But from the 1970s on, his dialogue with realism has continued to intensify. After "Bad Painting" came Good Painting, and after tempera and acrylics came oil, as Jenney became irresistibly beguiled by what he calls "idealized line and ideal color."
"Idealism was unavoidable," he writes in the catalogue for the current show. The shift to oil paint led Jenney, a perfectionist through and through, to seek chromatic precision. His introduction of imagery also required immense painterly control and a higher visual standard than the one measuring abstraction.
His initial "good" landscape paintings, in which he amped up the precisionist techniques of the 19th-century Hudson River School -- John Frederick Kensett and Sanford R. Gifford come to mind -- were basically vast, horizontal, cinematic images featuring luminous backlit skies and slices of landscape that at the time seemed to express certain environmental concerns. (More than 21 feet long, his 1971-1976 Biosphere #4, owned by the Museum of Modern Art, features a silhouetted section of the globe itself.)
Like his recent work, these were not records of specific places but instead were meticulously rendered, non-site-specific composites. And really they were not exactly paintings; they were and continue to be wall constructions, with each hand-built black volumetric frame indissolubly essential to the painting it encloses.
Oh, those frames. Jenney has never lost his interest in sculpture -- he just extended it to the frames he constructs for each painting. To eliminate wall labels, which he hates, and to direct the viewer, he also ingeniously migrates his titles, stenciled in anachronistic fonts, onto the frames themselves.
In the current show, a pair of Atmosphere Formation paintings that feature dissolving tortoise- and hare-shaped clouds have elaborate mantelpiece frames. The legends are stenciled in grey capital letters on boards that slant slightly outward from the frames’ bottom ledges. The interior surface of each bottom ledge is ever so subtly "fuzzed" with a scumble of light grey paint Jenney has designed (like footlights) to intensify the glow in the paintings, underlighting the pellucid blue skies. Such perfection demands time.
A slow worker, Jenney usually produces only three or four paintings a year. In the current show are three recent paintings from his North American Vegetae series, painted in 2007 and 2008 (#2, #3 and #4). It is absolutely impossible to see these works adequately -- or any of his paintings -- in reproduction. You really have to be there. Each of the Vegetae paintings presents a different, delicately claustrophobic sliver of a close-up of branches, leaves and tree trunks, as if you were inside the woods peering through the foliage. While traces of grass can be seen beyond the meticulously drafted leaves, there is no horizon and any evidence of sky exists only as a reflection -- in one painting it’s a barely perceptible slender blue line at the top edge of a Sumac frond. This is a brilliant touch. The flora ruthlessly obstructs any more expansive view, and the massive black painted frames create an architectural foreground that additionally cancels out any kind of illusionistic entry to the scene.
The same thing happens frequently in these recent paintings as a further foil to any implications of traditional realism. In North America Divided (1996), Jenney paints a horizontal strand of barbed wire, mended with a bit of rope, to stand for a pretty ad hoc rickety borderline between Canada and America. The wire serves another purpose; it effectively blocks the viewer from entering the sparsely detailed landscape and pushes everything into the foreground, stamping out any implications of photographic realism. Its companion piece, North America Depicted, Canadian #2, is even flatter and more abstract, isolating a single slice of tree trunk along with a vertical branch against a vast panorama of shallow blue space. Aquatica (2006), a smaller, more loosely rendered painting of a section of whitecaps, is actually totally abstract; its title is all that informs you of its subject.
Jenney has brought his meticulous technique to new levels of refinement in the pair of paintings called North America Divided that feature a wall of boulders (The show title, "N over A" equals "North America Divided," the dates of the pictures are 2001-02 and 2004). As Robert Frost wrote in a poem about such a wall, "Winds blow over the open grassy places bleak / But where this old wall burns a sunny cheek / They eddy over it too toppling weak / To blow the earth or anything self-clear / Moisture and color and odor thicken here / The hours of daylight gather atmosphere." I want to resist reading too much into these really superb paintings, but it seems to me that the dead branches leaning against the divider line of the old stone wall also can be read as vague crosses, especially since in the second painting there is a single flower indicating that God may be dead but life has sprouted anew. All interpretations aside, the subtlety of these paintings makes them some of the finest the artist has ever made.
On the other hand, Jenney also has a lighter side, known to all those who may have seen his designs for better baseball paraphernalia. Scattered around the gallery are small white canvases stenciled in black letters that demonstrate his fondness for aphorisms such as "Art is Nature Adjusted," "Baseball is Drama Constructed," "Humor is the Timely Application of Good Natured Surprise" and "In Law We Trust." Remember, I told you he was a quirky thinker.
ALEXANDRA ANDERSON-SPIVY is a critic and art historian living in New York.