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Laissez-Faire Aesthetics

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Posted on Jan 30, 2013
Eakins Press

(Page 4)

Working with paint that has sometimes been thinned to the consistency of Japanese ink, Jensen unfurls jagged, looping calligraphic strokes over surfaces that have the luxuriant patinas of faded gold leaf and weather-worn bronze and centuries old vellum. If there is something sleek and easy on the eyes about these paintings, that is just their Gilded Age come-on. In most of the compositions broad strokes of paint create a floating foreground suspended before an equally ambiguous background. The weight of the colors and the differences in surface treatments give these juxtapositions a specificity, a focus. Jensen’s paintings have a fascinating double life, grabbing a gallerygoer on first glance while also working slowly, almost covertly. He lets us know what kinds of things he is thinking about. An interest in Japanese ink painting is evident. So is his fascination with an old idea of the artist as a craftsman. And one can see many allusions to de Kooning and to Abstract Expressionism in general.

Among artists Jensen has an ardent following. He is a figure in the Brooklyn bohemia that nowadays centers around life along Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg, where the twenty-somethings and thirty-somethings browse in one of New York’s few independent bookstores, Spoonbill and Sugartown. He has exhibited with blue chip galleries, first Mary Boone and, now, Cheim and Read. And yet from the vantage point of the international art machine Bill Jensen hardly exists. The trouble for the laissez-faire art world must be that Jensen’s work rejects consensus, that it’s so particularly, so insistently what it is. There’s no irony about Jensen’s relationship to de Kooning or Japanese brush painting. And when his color becomes extravagantly giddy, with eye-popping oranges and purples and greens, the point is not to be campily carnivalesque but to be heartfelt, exuberant, exultant. What Jensen cares about is his own inward-turning feelings, sometimes to the point of obscurity. So the process by which this work finds its audience is naturally slow, incremental, irregular, unpredictable. Why should it be otherwise? The health of painting does not depend on huge audiences; a couple of dozen people can sustain an artist’s career. I am not thinking here only of modern art or of the avant-garde. Fouquet’s illuminated pages and Poussin’s allegories were meant to speak to minuscule audiences.

Jensen has his imitators in the art world, no question about it. But he is not a consensus artist. His effects are not reproducible. His best paintings are singular statements, irrevocably solitary. And so they violate the very principle of laissez-faire aesthetics, which has everything to do with an emotional promiscuity, with an ability to be all things to all people. In this sense, laissez- faire aesthetics mimics the reach of popular culture, although without the democratic idealism that gives the best of pop culture its essential power. It is the very essence of popular culture that the intense feelings that a song or a movie kick off in us are experienced by many other people, almost simultaneously. When somebody refers to “The summer we fell in love and everybody was playing our song,” they are describing one of the essential pop experiences—the sense that the individual is connected with the group. Among laissez-faire artists there is an assumption, sometimes openly voiced, often silently implied, that if an art experience cannot spread like wildfire it is not really significant—and that it is somehow undemocratic. I reject both claims.

It is true that the greatest popular artists produce at least the illusion that they are living where the audience is living. But painters set out to do something entirely different. We interact with a painter’s work in a radically different way. We develop a one-on-one relationship with a painting, a relationship that is intimate, maybe even secretive. When people find something lacking in even the best contemporary painting and sculpture, they may actually be saddling this work with an unwarranted assumption, widespread today, that all major works of art are going to have the pervasive impact that we know from some of our great experiences with popular art—with movies and rock music. The result is a flattening of all artistic experience.

The biggest danger now confronting people who love painting and sculpture is a unitary view of culture, which in practice amounts to a view that all culture is, or should be, popular culture. No one personifies this new attitude more completely than Matthew Barney, the good-looking man who is often the subject of his own videos and photographs, and who has become an expert at inflating experimentalist gambits to grand-opera proportions, never more so than with “Matthew Barney: The Cremaster Cycle,” mounted at the Guggenheim Museum in New York a few year ago. Barney’s sleek self-consciousness enabled him, in his younger years, to make some money as a male model for J. Crew and Macy’s advertising campaigns. He offers modernist obscurantism wrapped in a metrosexual package, and the result is another version of laissez-faire aesthetics. He was a downtown sensation with his first show at Barbara Gladstone in 1991, for which he videotaped himself, naked except for some mountain climbing equipment, scaling the walls of the gallery. Since then, he has become an international pop-bohemian phenomenon.

Visitors to the Guggenheim show were probably a bit vague as to why Barney, looking as buff as can be in a pink kilt, had filmed himself climbing up the rotunda of the Guggenheim and then projected the results on video monitors suspended from the ceiling of the museum. My impression, however, was that people were glad to go along with the arcana of The Cremaster Cycle, a series of five phony-baloney mythopoetic movies, accompanied by dumpster loads of junk from some godforsaken gymnasium of the imagination. Barney stars in a sprawling but static pageant of athletic prowess, cross-dressing, and genderbending, with settings ranging from an Art Deco skyscraper to a rugged coastal landscape. The audience at the Guggenheim may not know what is going to come next, but they immediately take everything in stride. They feel oh-so- up-to-date when Barney poses in a gynecological examination chair. It doesn’t matter what any of this means. You’re simply expected to accept the illogic. (Cremaster, for those who have not yet heard, is the muscle that raises and lowers the testicles; it is described in a twenty-page glossary in the Barney catalogue that has entries ranging from “anus island” to “zombie.”) With “Matthew Barney: The Cremaster Cycle,” the Guggenheim Museum became an artsy-fartsy version of the multiplex. And that is right in line with laissez- faire aesthetics.

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