Monday, December 16, 2013

BILL JENSEN: Revisited

Bill JensenThe Meadow, 1980-81, oil on linen, 22×22”


THIS IS NOT the otherworldliness of spirituality. This is this world: spirituality as the center of being, 14th Street to Tibet. Bill Jensen presumes no grand exclusive vision that I know of. He paints, and in his paintings things happen or don't. He goes places or doesn't. We go or don't. No big deal. Entirely our choice.

No longer is his painted image gratifying by being strong. He can't and won't do that for us anymore. He hasn't for some time now. Years. Maybe he spoiled us, and for that he will accept responsibility. And that is the big deal. So don't vote for him, to paraphrase someone.

The story is fascinating. What happened? What happened to make Bill Jensen drop his sure thing, the golden sword and shield, the cherished crest? You could see it coming a dozen years ago. Blow the lid off and what have you got? What's left, at the bottom, on the other side? Nothing, we fear. Nothing to live for, and paint for. To care for and get out of bed for. Lose the will and what power is there?

Bill Jensen did it. He made the leap and now he has to face it everyday. There is no going back. His paintings are just what he finds. That's all there is. For Jensen. The paintings, his paintings. His vision, but more accurately, what he sees. What he can see. All he can see. And what does he see? What happens between the paint tube and the brush mark, the blank canvas and the place inside him? Can he reach it? Can he clear away the stuff in between, the stuff blocking the way, and then, can it reach him? Or is it even less complicated than that? Will something happen, will something meet him?
Bill Jensen paints the painting, and with his courage not only makes things happen, but lets them happen. But what does he believe? That is the question. What is at the bottom of his paintings? A dozen years ago he gave us something we could sink our teeth into, something solid we could believe. Something that approximated God. Something more than a piece of the rock. The rock itself. But then that changed. He changed. He had a son, a family. He went to Rome. These things touched him. They touch us all. 
Bill Jensen; oil on linen

And then what? No more rock. Something larger. The allness. Bill Jensen makes the trip to Allsville, and that's all there is. A peek at the big picture.

Bill JensenDeadhead1986, oil on linen, 36 1/2×33 1/4”

BILL JENSEN HAS CHANGED the way he goes about making a painting, so much so that it could no longer be called making a painting. It would have to be called something else. Something like maybe catching a painting, because what he is doing is a lot more like fishing that anything we would call making. Certainly the fisherman would never presume to say that he made the fish, he would merely be content to say he caught it. Bill Jensen is clearly in the business of trying to catch a painting, to land a big one, to bring one home. That would make him happy.

Fifteen years ago Jensen would make small sketches that would be shaped while riding the bus or train, while traveling to and from his studio across the East River in Williamsburg. These would be turned into drawings, shaped some more, and finally, perhaps, hammered into a painting where the promise of the sketch would flower into thin, flat scraps of oil paint on linen, edges sharply cut, contour meeting contour like pieces of a puzzle or plots of land. The process was very much one of making in the extreme, more like forging, as in the forging of steel. The image was controlled, methodical, and determined by expectations. It was tatooed, almost as though there was a code, even a set of rules about the process.

Today Jensen's paintings reflect a different kind of honor, a different kind of conviction and determination. Yes, the battle is still within, but it is no longer the battle: the struggle has been sublimated into the most natural expression of life: a relationship. The process, attitude, and expectations have all radically changed. The value has changed. It is not quality as a value, but as an experience, and that is the value. The earlier paintings were clear and defined-sure truths. They were answers. These new paintings are murky-uncertainties. They are questions. 
Bill Jensen

These latter works are beholden to no one; they are unpredictable and even contrary. They are crusty landscapes and ornery still-lifes next to the earlier iconographic heads. They have a more far-reaching space. The way they are painted eludes calculation or analysis. Sometimes they seem almost painfully triumphant in defiance. They fish for the unseen, the unknown, the shy creature at the bottom, in the shadows. The shapes, the handling of paint, the choice of color have less to do with the language of painting and everything to do with staying close to the bone, to the earth, ear to the ground, the wind, the waves. Instead of fire there is longing, instead of passion there is compassion, and instead of roaring, they very quietly listen. Where the earlier work was standing up in your face, this work reclines. So pull up a chair! There is even that kind of whimsy. So who can say what is going on in these paintings?

Bill Jensen; Untitled; 1993; ink on paper; 19 x 15 1/4"

In the end, Bill Jensen paints mysteries. Aways has. And yes, in the world of painting, as in the everyday, there are boatloads, but very few good ones. As the force of painting fades from our lives, Bill Jensen's mystery paintings remain nothing short of legend. His are great mysteries. 
Late this winter Nina Nielsen and John Baker dedicated the first floor of their Newbury Street gallery in Boston to a survey of Jensen's work from 1986 to 1993. It was a perfect invitation to do the otherwise unthinkable: make comparisons. Here we had works which clearly documented the revolution this artist experienced, and we got to look at them from an almost anthropological point of view. 
Bill Jensen; Paradise Lost, 1987-88, oil on linen, 42 1/4×32 1/2”

In many ways the exhibition was a mystery explained, a marked trail across a vast, untamed continent. Panting by painting a journey from civilization into the hills unfolded. It didn't happen all at once, but instead evolved in a gradual process of letting go, reaching out, of perseverance, discovery, and fruition. Contrary to the way it might seem, Bill Jensen kept his promise.

Addison Parks, Cambridge, 1994
Courtesy of Provincetown Arts; Volume 10; 1994
From the Artdeal Magazine Archives

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