BY Isobel Harbison in Reviews | 01 OCT 10
Featured in
Issue 134

Sergej Jensen

White Cube, London, UK

BY Isobel Harbison in Reviews | 01 OCT 10

Untitled (Ali), 2010. Acrylic on canvas, 190 x 170 cm. Courtesy: White Cube, London, and the artist. Photograph: Lepkowski Studios, Berlin.

Sergej Jensen’s exhibition, ‘The Last 20 Minutes of 2001’, was split between two levels of White Cube’s Mason’s Yard space. Downstairs hung 14 abstract works, composed of or worked upon a range of nuanced fabrics, through which the timber mounting is often rendered subtly, knowingly visible. Their pictorial elements whisper soft sophistication in a muted, beach-pebble palette with occasional, discrete patches of gold.

The Danish-born, Berlin-based artist often sets his work against disruptive architectural interventions. On the far side of the basement gallery at White Cube, a large section of the wall had been torn open to reveal a loading entrance, the doorframe behind the lacerated plasterboard wrenched outwards into the gallery. This kind of disclosure is characteristic of Jensen’s work: a nearby painting, Spaceship Window Dew (all works 2010), presents a range of watery grey acrylics on linen that wash together to reveal the gentle imprint of its timber mounting. Beyond the formal similarities of the exposed grids, the gesture was presumably intended to offset the paintings’ refinement but it seemed a shoddy accessory to the exhibition, and the affect was somewhat contrived.

Untitled also highlights its own support, a would-be rectangular black acrylic on linen boasts a curved and bulging right-hand margin. Nodding to Ellsworth Kelly’s hard-edged work of the 1950s, Jensen’s duller and diluted surface both alludes to and camps in the shadow of its self-assured antecedents. Paint’s fleshiness is the subject of both scrutiny and amusement in Postauthentic Times, in which neatly stitched linen strips, painted in navy-blue acrylic, seem to rise up and spill over at the edges – from a distance they look like the thick monochrome impasto brushstrokes of early Abstract Expressionism. Jensen is adept at extracting new works from old, moving nimbly between the physical and historic layers of abstract painting, but he retains a curious touch of indifference; there is a sense of visiting an art history funfair, the palette of which has been meticulously and tastefully updated.

This aside, several works stood out. The warm translucent bleached-cotton ground of The White Otters of Childhood II is a mix of pale pinks and greys, over which four thin open squares have been delicately applied with nail varnish. In the top right corner a dark grey fabric panel sets the work into relief and the static elements are mobilized. This kind of contemporary formalism is clear in several of the works, an exploratory brand of abstraction that is spirited and visually rewarding and a reminder of Jensen’s clear strength as a visual composer.

Regrettably, though, these were set amongst an overly referential din. Several of the works’ titles suggest Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), such as Space, an acrylic wash of deepening blues, mounted on linen. But the work that cites the actual film and shares the exhibition title is perhaps the most disappointing. A collaboration with Kerstin Cmelka and Josef Strau, this short 16mm silent film features Jensen and Strau posturing awkwardly in various domestic and studio environments, performing farcical renditions of the daily pursuits of the serious artist: scrutinizing slides, reading between book-stacks, studio confiding and sofa conniving. Perhaps intended as playful analogy to Dr Dave Bowman, Kubrick’s cosmic explorer trapped in the threshold of the new, the result was neither amusing nor inspiring and served as a poor conclusion to ‘The Last 20 Minutes of 2001’, resonating with the affectations of the more mannered works and misrepresenting the grace, elegance and innovation evident in a few. Any serious correlation between the works and the weighted exhibition title remained unclear, in fact its absence may have benefited the mighty few works that required less projection and more … space.

Isobel Harbison is an art critic based in London. Her book, Performing Image, will be published by the MIT Press later this year.