Bill Jensen currently has an exhibition of his paintings at the Chelsea branch of the Mary Boone Gallery. Or, to pin down the billing more precisely, Ms. Boone is currently exhibiting Mr. Jensen’s paintings. The renowned dealer’s new gallery on West 24th Street it’s been open a few months now is typically Boone-ian and then some. After passing through the gallery’s immaculately designed foyer-slash-decompression zone, one enters the immaculately designed exhibition space. We do so, ostensibly, to look at what’s up on the wall. Our eye, however, is invariably drawn to the ceiling. Ms. Boone’s capacious gallery is dramatically accentuated by a quartet of arcing wooden trusses, architectural artifacts original to the building. On each occasion I’ve visited Boone Chelsea, viewers have spent as much time oohing and aahing over the ceiling’s sweep as they have looking at the exhibit. They have good reason: The trusses are a spectacular touch for a spectacular space.
The problem with this spectacular space is that it doesn’t make for an environment conducive to the experience of art. This is, as anyone who keeps half an eye on the art scene knows, the point. Ms. Boone’s Chelsea gallery, ostentatious even in its severity, is tailor-made to let art know its place to, in effect, diminish its authority while milking the prestige only art can afford. Mr. Jensen’s paintings look pitiably small in Ms. Boone’s behemoth. How can any object combat the imperial imperatives of such a status-minded milieu?
Of course, a work of art should retain its autonomy, if not exactly flourish, under the least accommodating of conditions. If the little-boy-lost character of Mr. Jensen’s show can be attributed to its current confines, it is also something for which the artist himself can be fingered. Coming after the amazing exhibition of his paintings on paper, seen last spring at Danese Gallery, Mr. Jensen’s paintings on canvas disappoint. The Danese show saw this dogged and admirable artist working with a hard-won ease, a thrilling confidence. The work invited, sustained and rewarded repeated visits. As someone who was transported by those pictures, I’m sad to report that confidence and ease are nowhere in evidence at Boone. Doggedness and how is what we’re left with. This is puzzling. Why do the canvases, which aren’t dissimilar to the paper pieces, fail to take off?
The reason has something to do with the differences between working on paper and working on canvas, and everything to do with what Mr. Jensen brings to those differences. It’s not uncommon for artists to approach paper with a greater flexibility than they would their primary medium. This freedom can be attributed to the relative disposability of paper less investment in materials can equal less pressure and a surface that inherently seems to encourage an investigative, playful casualness. In the paper works, Mr. Jensen moved with a brusque but considered pace, marveling at how his painterly calligraphy took on its own wild independence. The paintings on canvas, in comparison, are labored rather than earned, frantic instead of assured. When Mr. Jensen swirls, smears, scrapes, blots, dribbles and slashes oil paint on his canvases, we see him reaching hoping for a denouement that’s as natural as it is surprising. Yet the results are less revelations than white flags. It’s as if Mr. Jensen can’t walk up to one of his canvases without slipping on his hair shirt and fretting over this, his next masterpiece. Why, we wonder, can’t he just loosen up and go with the flow?
On my subsequent visits to Boone, individual pictures did assert themselves, among them the cinematic slash-and-burn of Ashes to Ashes, the blur of spidery latticework in Devotee II, and Images of a Floating World #14 (all 2000-2001), in which pinkish-orange brushmarks achieve an abrupt detente with their scarred ground. In these pieces, one gets a glimpse of the mood and mystery if not the natural-born mysticism Mr. Jensen esteems in the art of Albert Pinkham Ryder, a figure who has long been an inspiration of his. Yet one wonders just how salutary a role model Ryder has been. Ryder was, after all, an original, and originals don’t leave a lot of wiggle room for those who follow in their wake. A better exemplar for Mr. Jensen may be someone like Fred Astaire. Astaire created an illusion of effortlessness so convincing (and enthralling) that it subsumed the hard work upon which it was predicated. He knew that the trick the magic, really was in not letting them see you sweat. This is a lesson Mr. Jensen has yet to bring to bear when putting oil paint to canvas. Bill Jensen: New Paintings is at Mary Boone Gallery, 541 West 24th Street, until March 24.
A Lot to Look At, But You Won’t Look A Lot
The painter Michael Bevilacqua, whose canvases are on exhibit at Fredericks Freiser Gallery, learned his craft customizing hot rods and it shows. His pictures, notwithstanding the painstaking exactitude of their stenciling, are fast, sleek, colorful and sharp. Juxtaposing snippets of appropriated imagery, each painting is an encomium to pop culture or, should one say, pop overload. They’re crammed with brand names, band names, Blue Meanies and the Michelin man. Mr. Bevilacqua’s stylings aren’t inappropriate to his subject: They key in to a society impelled by the short-sighted and short-lived fascinations of youth.
As a geezer-in-training, I’m mildly heartened that I recognize as many of Mr. Bevilacqua’s emblems as I do. As a geezer-in-training who treasures the life of art, however, the paintings don’t impel me to find out about those I don’t. While the pictures have a nice improvisatory feel, Mr. Bevilacqua doesn’t know where to go or what to do with his improvisations. His compositions accumulate but don’t add up, and the artist’s touch is as dead as it is efficient. Zippy and inert may be an unusual combination, but it doesn’t make a lot to look at worth looking at a lot. High-Speed Gardening is at Fredericks Freiser Gallery, 504 West 22nd Street, until March 17.
Shit Hits the Fan At This McCarthy Show
Thrill-seekers willing to get shit upon in the name of art should set out for the Luhring Augustine gallery, where Santa Chocolate Shop, an installation by Paul McCarthy, is currently on view. The uninitiated should be warned that the previous sentence is less figurative than they might think. Mr. McCarthy’s shambling forays into infantilism, recorded for posterity on video, employ rag-tag animal costumes, large quantities of food stuffs, and partners in putrefaction happy to bare, if not their hearts and souls, then every other portion of their anatomies. The artist’s grosser-than-thou absurdism is intended as a kind of primal comedy, a scatological satire on the delusions of civilization. Yet the only amusing thing about Santa Chocolate Shop is the way visitors to the gallery steal furtive, embarrassed glances at one another, in the hope that the eyes they meet don’t belong to someone they know.
In addition to the Luhring Augustine show, Mr. McCarthy is having a retrospective at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in Soho; his art can also be seen at Deitch Projects and the I.B.M. Building on 57th Street. Cultural completists have their work cut out for them. New Yorkers who are a bit more discriminating in their cultural pursuits as well as have a range of interests that dares extend beyond the grimier precincts of the art scene will conclude that life is short and act accordingly. Paul McCarthy: Santa Chocolate Shop is at Luhring Augustine, 531 West 24th Street, until April 7.