Zigzagging Between Extremes-Sometimes Getting Away With It

Bill Jensen is one of our most interesting-and inconsistent-painters. After looking at his recent pictures at the Mary Boone Gallery, I’ve come to the conclusion that he’s interesting precisely because he’s inconsistent. Over the years, his landscape-based abstractions have zigzagged between extremes: between the lumbering and the graceful, the undercooked and the right-on, the self-conscious and the self-effacing.

The clunky stuff is on canvas, the lyrical on paper-which is fascinating. Frustrating, too, particularly (or so one imagines) for the artist himself. The paintings and drawings, while similar in approach, have varied in quality. The former have been honorable; the latter thrilling. “The difference between working on canvas and working on paper really fucks some guys up,” I recall an artist inelegantly opining. He was right. Mr. Jensen could be a textbook example of the phenomenon.

Or maybe not. The canvases at Boone are a surprise: They’re exciting. That they might be terrible only adds to the excitement. Not much has changed-Mr. Jensen is still trailing looping skeins of calligraphy across the surfaces of his paintings, doggedly smearing, scraping and blotting oils with a gritty dispatch. What has changed is the character of this agitation. Previously, Mr. Jensen’s paintings had merely seemed laborious; here, he makes laboriousness work for him.

The weathered surfaces of the pictures don’t call attention to themselves; instead, they evoke the land, the figure, the heavens, the beginning of time and, if I’m not mistaken, the apocalypse. If this sounds romantic and overheated, well, it is. But Mr. Jensen gets away with it to the extent that he buries himself in his paintings and then digs his way out again. Of course, there are moments when he stays buried: Some of the pictures, the smaller ones in particular, feel abandoned rather than realized. Then there are Images of a Floating World #15 (2000-1), Howl (2001-3) and Locus , (2001-3), pictures that attain a rough and scrabbled clarity. They’re beautiful-and ugly, too. Mr. Jensen wouldn’t have it any other way.

Bill Jensen is at the Mary Boone Gallery, 745 Fifth Avenue, until April 26.

Playtime

Calder: A Modern Definition of Space is the title of an exhibition of sculptures by Alexander Calder (1898-1976) at Van de Weghe Fine Art, and there can be no doubting Calder’s modernity. Marrying Constructivist rigor and Surrealist caprice, he stands as one of the great followers of 20th-century art, leaving others to attend to artistic innovation and high drama. One of the delights of the work, in fact, is how adroitly it skims from precedent. Calder’s not-insignificant gifts were refinement, buoyancy and an impish wit, all of which transform Van de Weghe’s “white box” into a high Modernist playground. The later, more industrial pieces underline how integral small gestures were to the vitality of Calder’s art-we cherish it for the agility of the artist’s hand, not his ability to phone in parts from the foundry. Seen in this context, however, the more publicly scaled sculptures provide an entertaining tension, playing Goliath to the earlier work’s David.

Calder: A Modern Definition of Space is at Van de Weghe Fine Art, 521 West 23rd Street, until May 23.

Barney, Barney,Burning Bright

Duty requires me to mention Matthew Barney’s show at the Guggenheim, and it hardly seems worth the effort. By now, everyone has heard something about the man and his art: that his Cremaster films take their name from the muscle that controls testicular contractions; that he installed a trough of Vaseline down the ramp of the museum; that he has been dubbed the “most important American artist of his generation” and a “modern visionary” in the tradition of William Blake.

Those blurbs are from, respectively, The New York Times ‘ chief art critic, Michael Kimmelman, and Mark Stevens, art critic of New York magazine. Mr. Kimmelman, ever tolerant of art-world excess, is predictable in his hyperbole. But Mr. Stevens’ plaudits trouble me: How could such a shrewd observer of the scene fall under Mr. Barney’s sway? Maybe Mr. Stevens really was swept away by the work. Maybe he really does believe that Mr. Barney’s masturbatory horror show places him in Blake’s company. Or maybe Mr. Stevens’ enthusiasm masks an anxiety over how stupid and sensational the mainstream of art has become.

Then again, who am I to talk? I attended none of the screenings of Mr. Barney’s magnum opus, the Cremaster films. From the portions I viewed on monitors located throughout the museum, it’s unlikely I ever will: The lugubrious mix of Busby Berkeley, Nauman-esque hokum and Surrealist elegance doesn’t appear to sustain any narrative or aesthetic rationale, let alone a reason to sit still. The work I did view-the photographs, the sculptures, the well-lubricated spectacle of it all-doesn’t even qualify as pornography, let alone art. If anything, pornography rates higher than Mr. Barney’s achievement: Pornography has no illusions about what it is, and presumably serves a purpose.

The civilized world will survive this Barney-ian moment, but one does wonder about the crowds lining up to take it all in. Do they hate art as much as Mr. Barney and his patrons at the Guggenheim? Or are they just suckers for celebrity? I pray it’s the latter, but neither question promises an answer that augurs well for the cultural good.

Matthew Barney: The Cremaster Cycle is at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1071 Fifth Avenue, until June 11.

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Zigzagging Between Extremes-Sometimes Getting Away With It