Bill Jensen’s Latest “Transgressions” at Cheim & Read

Although he came to prominence among the Neo-Expressionists, Bill Jensen’s paintings have never quite fit into that group. Unlike his peers, such as Julian Schnabel, David Salle, and Elizabeth Murray, Jensen doesn’t much doubt or question painting’s efficacy. A new exhibition of recent works at Cheim & Read, titled “Transgressions,” spotlights both his affection for the tradition of painting and his wily inventiveness with brushes and pigments.

  • Installation view of “Bill Jensen: Transgressions,” Cheim & Read, New York. Courtesy Cheim & Read.

The show’s centerpiece is the triptych Transgressions III (2011–14). At each end, the suite presents large oil-on-linen paintings of figurative-like images that psychedelically droop and melt, never fully becoming human. This triptych is complemented by the much-smaller Study for Right Hand Panel of Transgressions (2013), which has a bright orange background and dulls the illustrative pseudo-figures into gray sketches. Transgressions expands on those manic, gamboling characters across two panels, interrupted in the middle by a densely textured abstraction. The title can be taken as a reference to traditional religious imagery, to which the figures seem to refer.

Even in his purer abstractions, Jensen hews close to figuration. Luohan (Violet #1) (2013) and Double Stillness (2014–15) are both created with expressive, broad brush marks—the former in violet, the latter in grayish yellow and pink. But their surfaces are also inscribed with scratches that seem to allude to figures, bodies, persons. 

Even exceptionally abstract paintings such as Mountain Tiger-Sky (2013), in which Jensen has scraped colorful paint in pools all over the canvas, suggests limbs and ligaments. These free-floating forms call to mind the torqued and attenuated figures of Northern Renaissance art.

  • Installation view of “Bill Jensen: Transgressions,” Cheim & Read, New York. Courtesy Cheim & Read.

Still, some of Jensen’s works remain wholly abstract: his color field paintings End of the Ordinary Realm (2013–14) and Dark Dragon Pool #V (2014–15) are shady, atmospheric compositions. The former is rendered as a densely textured black-and-white image, as if a portal is opening to a new world from the gray residue of this one. The latter is evocative, and although it is dark, the interplay of olive green, alizarin crimson, and dioxazine purple forms a spectral abstract landscape.

Earlier in his career, Jensen was known for his rich, painterly biomorphic compositions, developed alongside such artists as Carroll Dunham and Terry Winters. His recent work carries those motifs forward and also pulls from the deeper history of Western painting. Drawing from classical imagery to invent original modes of contemporary abstraction, Jensen continues, as he has since the 1980s, to create influential new territory for his medium.

—Stephen Dillon

Bill Jensen: Transgressions” is on view at Cheim & Read, New York, Apr. 9–May 9, 2015.

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