Bill Jensen, Quintessentially American Maverick

If Bill Jensen weren’t capable of making such awful paintings, his good ones wouldn’t be worth taking so seriously. His improvisatory method is inherently hit-or-miss. His scraped and scarred canvases often fail to distinguish between the grace note and the heavy hand.

Case in point: the forbiddingly dark canvases in the introductory gallery of Cheim & Read in Chelsea, where his recent efforts are on display. The paintings are reminiscent of Mark Rothko’s late attempts to channel an existential sublime. To Mr. Jensen’s credit, they aren’t as pretentious—if only because they’re hardly anything at all. They’re mainly comprised of barely perceptible fluctuations in patina. One gallery-goer, with a poetic flourish, dubbed them “19th-century landscapes engulfed in doom.”

The paintings do recall the moody scenes of Albert Pinkham Ryder, long a favorite of Mr. Jensen’s, but mostly the Ryders that have suffered catastrophic discoloration due to his notoriously blasé attitude toward materials. Sometimes subtlety is too subtle to bother with.

But that’s a handful of pictures. The rest of the 20 or so canvases, while uneven in quality, are less stark and earnest. They’re earnest enough, mind you, but Mr. Jensen’s labor-intensive resolve is bolstered by colors startlingly new to his work.

A painter for whom the natural world is less a recognizable subject than an ominous brew of portent, Mr. Jensen’s early palette was earthy to a fault. Its unimaginative tones tended to muffle, if not outright stifle, inventive arrays of marks, textures and shapes. Given Mr. Jensen’s desire to tap into nature’s grit and physicality, such a palette was appropriate. But sometimes mud is just mud.

So where did the shrieking primary colors come from? It’s as if someone turned on the lights in Mr. Jensen’s studio—or maybe the fireplace. Deep and lustrous blues, yellows and reds, remarkable for their relative clarity, burn with harsh intensity.

That’s the most of it, but not all of it: Silky purples, fluctuating runs of rust and unsullied greens evince the exhilaration of a painter who’s finally getting a handle on the expressive capabilities of color.

Most surprising, because radically atypical, is the milky blur cascading through Luohan (Light Step) (2003-6)—a color that’s almost, but not really, whitish purple. Elusive and unnamable hues are an indicator of Mr. Jensen’s growth—at last!—as a colorist.

All of which would be meaningless if the palette were divorced from his process and rhythm. It’s not: Color thrives as an integral component of the whole. An admirer of Chinese calligraphy, Mr. Jensen’s canvases don’t achieve its elegance or fluidity (an attribute true of his works-on-paper), but his whiplash brushstroke does embody its slippery allusiveness.

Obscured behind abraded veils of color, Mr. Jensen’s trails of oil paint bristle and twist, at times with bracing recklessness. The signature small formats—37 by 28 inches is stretching it for Mr. Jensen—attain a monumental effect. Intuitively gauging the relationship between gesture and surface area, he creates a heaving internal scale that belies each painting’s modest size.

Mr. Jensen’s best pictures—Scorched Field (2004-5), Luohan (Persona) (2005-6), Bog (2004-6), The Red House (Jimi Hendrix) (2004-6) and the evanescent St. Sebastian (2005-6)—smolder as if they were lit from within; a glow, sometimes corrosive, emanates from beneath innumerable scrims of paint. It’s hard to know where Mr. Jensen’s densely layered paintings begin and end. Deciphering his tracks is pointless. The images can’t be unraveled; Mr. Jensen’s approach defies practical logic. The paintings coalesce in ways that mystify the audience and, as is evident from their spontaneity and momentum, the artist himself.

In the catalog essay “The Elbow and The Milky Way,” the critic John Yau writes of how Mr. Jensen’s paintings “cannot be seen all at once … [and] must be experienced both visually and physically.” They achieve a “state of simultaneity, of a complexity that engages more than just our eyes.” So far, so good—but then Mr. Yau insists that Mr. Jensen shares a “philosophical basis” with Jasper Johns and Robert Ryman.

Say what? The stock in trade of Mr. Johns and Mr. Ryman, a drably pedantic literalism, couldn’t be further from Mr. Jensen’s scrabbled poetry. The pictorial seductions (such as they are) found in Mr. Johns’ and Mr. Ryman’s paintings are deracinated, banal and short-lived. Mr. Jensen’s paintings are full-bodied, bottomless and repay repeated looking.

Mr. Yau’s essay is otherwise clear-eyed and perceptive. Likening Mr. Jensen to Jackson Pollock is right, particularly given the urgency bordering on desperation that marks, if not outright defines, the oeuvres of both men. Mr. Yau sharpens the focus on the pictorial hurdles that Mr. Jensen sets for himself and, not least, his “maverick” status.

In that regard, Mr. Jensen is quintessentially American. He follows in the proud tradition of headstrong individuals, unapologetic eccentrics and outright loners punctuating the history of American art, such as Thomas Eakins, Louis Eilshemius, Arthur Dove, and peers like Pat Adams, David Fertig and Andrew Masullo.

Self-reliance may be the American way, but it’s not without social and political liabilities. In art, it’s less fraught with consequence, so it can provide a heady sense of possibility. The “wild, anarchic beauty” of Mr. Jensen’s art (the dead-on phrase is courtesy of Mr. Yau) underlines that truth and is evident—thrillingly, ineradicably—in the artist’s successes as well as his failures.

We shouldn’t ignore (or forgive) the frequency of the latter. Mr. Jensen wouldn’t have integrity if he didn’t risk falling on his ass. Nor would he make good paintings if he didn’t dust himself off and give it another go. Tenacity is the rule. Mr. Jensen is the real thing, and all the more rare because of it.

Bill Jensen is at Cheim & Read, 547 West 25th Street, until March 24. Bill Jensen, Quintessentially American Maverick