Thursday, October 3, 2019

Beauty, Death, and The Otherworldly in Art - Bill Jensen, Painter

Bill Jensen makes resonant, living paintings of great emotional density that resist the application of definitions, ideologies, and “pictorial strategies.” 

Bill Jensen, Louhan (Dark Angel), 2010-11, 28x23 in.

This painting, for example, doesn't represent anything in a traditional manner, and yet, at least in my experience, if you stand in front of Louhan (in eastern mythology, an angel of death) in a receptive state, you will find yourself reacting to it with an inexplicable, contradictory combination of fear, fascination, repulsion, and attraction. This feeling will move in you like something alien and alive for which you have no words. All of this and more hit me while I gazed at it, even before I knew the title (or at least what the word louhan meant). Nor am I the only one to react to it this way (the gallerist knew just what he was doing when he told me to “just stand in front of it for a minute”). I felt this painting emote a deep-seated, almost palpable presence.

Obviously, all that you have to judge by here is a tiny flat jpeg, so you'll have to take my word for it. But I want to use this painting and my experience for a meditation on the ability of a certain kind of art to make us feel something powerful without words, images, or definite ideas. 

Indeterminacy is not the same as meaningless. The former opens a field of possibilities, the latter closes them down. The art in painting isn't in the scene pictured or even in the skill with which the scene is rendered. It's in the work itself, inherent in all of its material (and immaterial, i.e. conceptual, emotional, psychological) aspects. It's in the alchemy of paint and the composition of an independent construct - what Cezanne called a "parallel harmony with nature.” As Motherwell said, "You don’t have to paint a figure in order to express human feelings. The game is not what things look like; the game is organizing states of feeling, and states of feeling become questions of light, color, weight, solidity, airiness, lyricism, whatever." (1)

Seeking recourse in philosophy, Louhan is a near-perfect illustration of German metaphysician Karlfried Graf Durckheim's definition of "the numinous," or otherworldly, related to (but a broader concept than) the sacred. "It takes in the ambivalence, the darker side of the Absolute," he writes. "There is always something in it that both terrifies and fascinates us... Using C.G. Jung's word, it "overpowers" us, and lifts us, with a force that both exhilarates and frightens us, out of the world-ego's everyday sphere and into another dimension, destroying and liberating us at the same time. When it does this, it always carries us in some sense beyond ourselves.... The numinous, which incorporates the sacred, is the quality in which the Absolute touches us in a very general sense."(2)

This is the realm of Rilke's Angel, his concept of beauty, which is anything but "pretty," harmonious, or comforting. "Every Angel is terrifying," he writes in the first Duino Elegy:

"and even if one of the pressed me suddenly against his heart
I would be consumed in that overwhelming existence.
For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, which we are still just able to endure,
and we are so awed because of how it serenely disdains to annihilate us."

Beauty, Death, the Sublime

 Sometime around the 20th century's two world wars, "beauty" in art got a bad rap. Although centuries earlier influential philosopher Edmund Burke denigrated it below what he called the sublime, others after him incorporated the sublime into the beautiful. In Burke, the realms of the beautiful and the sublime are both realms of feeling, but finally the beautiful is associated with things which belong to the understanding, and the sublime with what can only be felt. Beauty which incorporates naivety (or irony) and sentimental doting is kitsch. Beauty which incorporates death is sublime.

In almost the same terms that Rilke, Durckheim, and Jung use, Burke defined the sublime as “whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, whatever is … terrible…There is something so over-ruling in whatever inspires us with awe, in all things which belong ever so remotely to terror, that nothing else can stand in their presence.”(3)

For Durckheim the numinous is a real quality in the world, in so far as our experience is always an amalgam of the objective and the subjective. Individuals can access and develop the "sensitive consciousness" of the Absolute via cultivation of a special kind of receptive "listening and being open from within." It's one of the things I sensed Jensen's Louhan had to teach me.

Here is what the curators at Cheim & Reed had to say about Jensen's painting (these links work, by the way, and they go to nice large images): "With its dense compositions, Jensen's work is primal and instinctive; the viewer's visceral reaction is a very important part of their impact. Jensen's work ranges widely in tone, showing different aspects of the psyche.  Louhan is an impressive piece, that immediately grabs hold of the viewer. With the deep black center and washed out colors, the gaping black might appear to swallow its surroundings.  But instead there is a luminosity to the work.  The dark angel of the title becomes quite present as energy appears to radiate from the black. The thin colors, then, appear like tendrils of flame, set alight by this presence. However, the specter of the dark angel is not necessarily wholly negative. The background does glow gold and purple, and theres is a sense of wonder at work here. This mixes with the ominous presence to create an intense experience, perhaps akin to the sublime." 

With little to no knowledge of Jensen, his work, or how people describe it, I absolutely found this to be true. I was told to put myself in an open, receptive state in front of it, and as soon as I did, I spontaneously experienced the "ominous presence" in the painting without even knowing the subject (only later learning Louhan = dark angel). Just like Burke suggests with the sublime, I  registered its content on the gut level, by visceral feeling alone, rather than the feeling-thinking-back-and-forth that happens to me in front of a lot of other paintings. It was like something, some sort of aura or presence, was physically emanating and coming out of the painting. Evidently I'm not the only one who feels this way about his work.

Here is another Jensen that must be incredible in person. I imagine it's like peering into a cave or a dark room before your eyes adjust and sensing movement somewhere within. By his own and others' accounts, Jensen achieves such uncanny effects by working entirely at the physical level of the paint, outside the boundaries of representation, manifesting an emotional “presence” neither wholly conceptual nor concrete. It's like he inhabits the medium and invests it with independent volition. His paintings have been likened to “self-contained beings” that can “affect the world around them.” His works aren't paintings of things so much as things in their own right, like organisms or beasts one would encounter alone in nature, under a microscope, or in a dream. 

That sounds hard to believe of course, because none of it comes through in the tiny digital images you can see online. I've experienced his work in person though, as I say, and it's one of the strangest, unforgettable experiences I've ever had. It's an extreme example of what Russian Formalist Viktor Schlovksy called "defamiliarization," or making strange," which has been linked by others to Freud's sense of the uncanny, in which a work of art or literature's mixture of the eerie and the familiar create an unsettling feeling rife with the suppressed content and impulses of the unconscious.

You have to engage with this work in a wholly different way than you would look at paintings rendered in the European tradition, where art is expected to represent something visually recognizable. You have to free associate from them. Note however, that's different from making up meanings for the work, which suggests the work is meaningless in itself and "can mean whatever you want it to mean." Nope. Not at all.

Work like Jensen's raises profound, even spiritual questions about painting. How can something completely lacking in recognizable (much less representational) subject matter (not mention even definite "meaning") so strongly affect viewers psychological and emotionally? That it does so would seem to fly in the face of Western art history and criticism, wiping away vast libraries full of volumes on whether line or color are more important, on abstraction vs. realism, on the nature of representation, and on and on. It's all irrelevant in the presence of one of these paintings. 

To bring it back to the mundane, I suspect it has to do with the colors and the qualities of the marks, the traces of physical gesture in the paint. Or perhaps Jensen taps into a visual language of the unconscious, embodying subliminal suggestions in the forms themselves, like symbols, archetypes of evocation. There could be a cognitive science of paint, I'm sure, like Noam Chomsky's Linguistics tracing the deep structures of the human language, but who the hell would want to read it? Naming something doesn't necessarily help us experience or understand it.

To put it more broadly, the only explanation I have is that, like Jackson Pollock, Jensen doesn't use paint to represent anything specific in nature, he uses it to embody nature itself in extremis. Maybe how he differs from Pollock is in his use of symbolism (emphatically absent in Pollock) - an idiosyncratic yet powerful symbolic shorthand - that is, maybe he could be said to be making symbolic representations of life forces, from the minute particulate cellular level to the enormous. Or maybe not.

He somehow incites the raw, visceral materiality of paint (color, quality of mark, god knows what else) in order to, as one of his curators says, "leave the viewer with clearer eyes and a deeper appreciation for the strange, beautiful tensions of the human condition."

In Jensen's oeuvre, painting is a paradox, a meeting place between substance and aura, existence and essence (in terms of the categories of Satrean existentialism). It's a totally different aesthetic than that of mainstream abstract art. His art is uncanny.

Jensen has been hailed as heir to Albert Pinkham Ryder, whom he acknowledges as a major inspiration and goes out of his way to celebrate and defend: Ryder, who said, "Art does not render the visible, but makes visible." Ryder's sensibility is key here to. And the gist of the following description of Ryder's work in 1920 could be paraphrased today and apply equally to Jensen's: "In the very depths of even the most unfathomable of (his paintings) there are impalpable suggestions of secret beauty. (Ryder's marines) are big in a way more important than that of mere size. The boat that appears in them is a sensible symbol of Life presented in such a manner as to illustrate forcibly the uncertainty that encompasses it."(4)

It isn't conceptual art. There's nothing about this work that requires dense, Continental theory to prop it up or explain it. In fact, its existence constitutes something of a refutation thereof. That alone should be enough to recommend it.

Here's a gallery of Bill Jensen's work. I neglected to get the dimensions of these, but suffice it to say they're modestly sized (only as big as they need to be for a viewer to stand in front and encounter it intimately, one-on-one).

Don't know but this looks like the abduction of Europa.

I also forgot to note the titles, but actually that may be for the best, as you can see how vivid and powerful they are even without them. Just don't make the mistake of breezing through the images and assuming they mean nothing. Give them the benefit of the doubt - stop, look, and free associate.

ecstatic - like an Eastern van Gogh!

like a hulking figure.... okay I'll stop and leave it to you

Looks like scribbles but give it a chance - it's also hair, tentacles, snakes, parasitic worms, and the way it's dripping: veins, viscera .... uncanny and chthonic!

I so need this painting...

A phoenix of rising from death ... I think of van Gogh's cornfield with crows

for me, this looks eerily like a bleeding virgin Mary (crown of thorns suggested) and a crow at the same time

early - a homage to Ryder (title: "Ryder's Eye")

another early one

Figures in a landscape anyone....?

early again

triptych. too cool.

as sheer design they're great too

fantastic! no?? Flowers, bones, masks, ribbons, veins and internal organs....

Like a purely symbolic Gaugin, a la "Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?"

1. Motherwell, Robert, documentary film, Robert Motherwell & the New York School: Storming the Citadel, 1991.
2. Durckheim, Karlfried Graf, Absolute Living, Viking Penguin, 1992, p. 124.
3. Burke, Edmund, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, 1757. 
4. Sherman, Frederic Fairchild, Albert Pinkham Ryder, New York, privately printed, 1920.



  1. Pretty amazing- I wonder how he gets into the ‘numinist ‘ state each time he approaches a painting or if it is a perpetual state of being- off to research this guy, thanks for sharing.

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