IF "PAINTING" TODAY refers less to material or object than to practice and action, then Denmark-born, Berlin-based Sergej Jensen is a painter. His description of his medium as "painting without paint" suggests that we should forsake an emphasis on the surfaces on and with which he works--burlap, linen, jute, wool, silk, denim--and attend instead to what he does to these textiles: He spreads them over stretchers; sews or irons patches and other fabric remnants onto them; and bleaches, stains, and dyes them, usually with abstract geometric marks and almost always in subdued neutrals or the secondary and tertiary spokes of the color wheel. Minimally worked, his paintings affirm a radical thrift of gesture, frequently incorporating reaches of empty space and faint, aleatory markings such as stains or smudges of soot. (Jensen says that he spent a lot of time staring at the ceiling as a sickly child; one is tempted to believe that almost-blank architectural expanses were a primary influence.) Though formally sophisticated and often quite beautiful, the works are typically unassuming in appearance and even seem, in German critic Diedrich Diederichsen's apt term, "shy"; indeed, the descriptor "homespun" regularly crops up in exhibition reviews.
Yet such estimations, particularly the latter one, fail to acknowledge how Jensen's work distills some of the thorniest matters of artistic production and reception of the past century--including questions of what happens to painting when it becomes decorative, encounters the strategies of the readymade, faces the incursions of popular culture, and gets tied to the machinations of capital and various modes of technology. Jensen knows that engaging these time-honored issues hazards a certain throwback feel--haven't we moved on?--and tacitly admits to the anachronism: Intermittent references to early computing technology are not so much nostalgic for the moment when such technology seemed to signal only optimism and the promise of progress as they are wistful for the memory of that moment as such.
The title of Jensen's first solo exhibition in New York last fall, "Paintings (I come from the computer)," was printed on sheets of paper that hung on a wall near the entrance to Anton Kern Gallery, sounding the double resonance of the phrase: I is Jensen himself--his mother was a computer programmer--as well as much of the work in that show, which borrowed from the imagery of prototypical electronic animation. The First Mensch, 2005, a skeletal rendering of a head and torso in blue acrylic on burlap, is based on an image of the first computer-generated human form, developed by programmer-designer William Fetter for Boeing in the 1960s, and the dashed, multicolored arcs in XXXX Deco, 2005, were sourced from a mid-century IBM logo. Jensen, born in 1973, played video games as a child, and while his allusions are occasionally more recent (the watery blotch in Opera Scene from Star Wars, 2005, for example, is meant to conjure a pivotal moment in the latest installment of George Lucas's epic), the look of Pong and Asteroids persists.
How to evaluate this transposition of computer-graphics iconography (albeit mostly obsolete) to the materials of distaff domesticity? Here it should be noted that in addition to invoking his mother in his show's title, Jensen has also created some of his paintings (such as the striped, afghanlike United Nations, 2005) by asking her to knit them according to his designs. Should such gender dynamics be filtered through a biographical lens, as a kind of tech-savvy reshuffling of the oedipal deck? Should the work be gauged in terms of early feminist art's approach to craft, and should one even invoke (in hushed tones) Pattern and Decoration? Well ... probably not. These affiliations are there, and if the paintings broadcast anything loudly, it's their renunciation of machismo. But everything about Jensen's circumspect, reserved, and highly formal work militates against the belaboring of such interpretations. …