Paintings may be pictures, but they are always objects. The blatant materiality of Sergej Jensen’s canvases made them seem part of the interior architecture of Neu’s gallery. Jensen has consistently had an ambivalent relation to the spaces in which he shows his work. Previously at Neu, he arranged mats on the floor that resembled his patchwork paintings, converting the gallery into a pseudo-living room, the paintings into decor that satirized the convention of a “high-art painting” show. Last year, after the expensive architectural conversion of White Cube’s Mason’s Yard gallery in London, he tore into sections of the newly constructed walls. Correspondingly, the ragged texture of his paintings—his refusal to have them conform to a plush commodity standard of finish—has always been a means of highlighting the distinction between innate and market value.
On this occasion, Jensen breached the consummate aura of the gallery by hanging six paintings in a shabby storage area on the grounds of Neu. The awkwardly dense installation of paintings in the main gallery performed a similar function, subverting—by sheer overload—the self-importance of an elegant painting installation. A body of work that set out to project an image of self-effacement has ended up in the position of a market leader, forced to defy the context which defines it as such in order to attempt to maintain its original integrity. Of course, as Jensen’s paintings have become more valuable, his sabotaging devices have also become esthetic conventions. A cultivated air of dissolution can only appear self-contradictory when success has made it a desirable attribute.
Jensen—the self-proclaimed producer of “paintings without paint”—is using more paint than previously, and it is mostly oil, the most luxurious of painting mediums. Applied to raw linen, the color is mostly negated when he turns the canvas over and restretches it. The support of one charcoal gray painting (all works 2011 and untitled) has collapsed inward along its right edge. Uneven cuttings of canvas—sewn together, and stretched over the skewed rectangle—cast the painting as an object as materialistically untranscendent as the edge of the wall it refuses to level with. And yet, the allover gray stain, mixed with iridescent silver pigments, make of the surface a night sky opaque with dampness. Material is reluctantly pictorialized.
While the canvases featured more paint, Jensen’s use of appliquéd fabric was more sparing than usual. Swaths of vermilion oil bleed through from the back of one work. Sewn onto the front, patches of raw linen resemble a child’s sketch of a spired church couched in a valley of red poppies, a pert sign planted into a language designed to reject such pat solutions. But the gesture seem more innocent than cynical, suggesting a desire for another world beyond the gallery’s domain of expensive art commodities—of which this work is one—and even beyond the material conditions of the medium, which the paintings insistently acknowledge.
Photo: Five of Sergej Jensen’s untitled paintings, all 2011; at Galerie Neu.