Painting in poetry
Bill Jensen acknowledges a good bit of influence from 20th-century American painting. As a student in the 1960s at his home-state University of Minnesota, Jensen studied with Peter Busa, an abstract expressionist he was so taken with that he continued his postgraduate work at Minnesota, resisting the pull of New York City. With his use of swirling shapes and bold colors, Jensen’s works fit rather comfortably in the abstract expressionist school that put American painting on the map in the post-World War II era. When, in the early ’70, he finally did move to New York, where he still lives, Jensen was blown away by a Whitney Museum exhibit of early-20th-century American modernist Marsden Hartley.His appreciation for American art extends back even further: Jensen speaks with great admiration of Albert Pinkham Ryder, an expressionist who spanned the 19th and 20th centuries. Jensen, who wrote a paper on the artist, calls Rider “where American painting started.”But Jensen’s primary influence dates many centuries and half a planet from the abstract expressionism of postwar America. The strongest spiritual and even visual connection in his art is with China. That inspiration dates back to the Taoist philosophy of the third and fourth centuries, and has lasted right up to the Fei Fei poetry movement, a group of poets that arose out of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.
Jensen’s current show at the David Floria Gallery features works on paper from four series, all with heavy Eastern ties. The Fei Fei series is inspired by the poets’ insistence on avoiding any particular style. (Fei Fei translates as “no no.”) The Duo Duo series is named for one of the Fei Fei poets; the Nüwa paintings are based on the legend of Nüwa and Fucsa, the primordial mole people who are a rough Chinese equivalent of Adam and Eve. All three series are made from a mixture of dry pigment, oil tempera and egg yolk that Jensen, a 59-year-old who bears a resemblance to actor Anthony Hopkins, mixes himself. The final works in the exhibit is the Drunken Brush series, black-and-white takes on Chinese calligraphic characters made on rare handmade British paper from the 1920s. All the works in the exhibit were made at the home Jensen has been renting for decades in the Siena countryside in Italy.Jensen, whose interests span from poetry to philosophy to biking, likes to speak of the critical moment of an artist’s life. He points, for instance, to William Turner, a 19th-century painter whose early works were, said Jensen, “very mannered, English landscape paintings, very proper, nice and neat.” After Turner was taken to the Louvre, then the Swiss Alps, “it just changed. That turned him into the Turner we love.”Jensen refers to such moments as seeing the phenomenon, or being drawn away by the phenomenon. The philosophy, which he traces to the third-century Taoists, involves the belief that the source of all things – the phenomenon – could not be understood by mere humans. “We can’t see it as it is because we’re human, because of our fears and habits,” said Jensen.
To the Taoists, art was a way to get closer to perceiving the phenomenon. “The Taoists believed they would make art the way the phenomenon sees itself, taking the person, the human, out,” said Jensen. “That sort of clinched for me why I’m so attracted to the Chinese culture.”Jensen’s own pivotal moment came during his college years. Jensen – who spent spring breaks teaching skiing in Aspen – had taken a fairly traditional course of study, heavy on Renaissance art history. The subject and moreover the method of teaching were less than inspiring. “What they wanted you to do was throw up what the work was about,” said Jensen.The teacher who turned him on to the spirit of creativity was Professor Robert J. Poor, who taught a Chinese-painting class. “There was no rote memorization,” said Jensen. “It didn’t matter if you knew the artist. He wanted to know how you felt about the painting.”
Early in his New York years, Jensen had another critical experience, again relating to Chinese art. Jensen made a friendship with John Yau, a first-generation Chinese-American poet and art critic. Yau was in the habit of recommending books of Chinese poetry, which Jensen devoured. Most of the poetry was ancient, but five years ago Yau gave Jensen a book of contemporary poems, written by the Fei Fei poets. Again the artist was enlivened by the Chinese culture.”It was after Tiananmen Square, when the artists were killed,” said Jensen of the Fei Fei’s origins. “And the poets were against everything – against rhyme, against style. Style to them looked like the encroachment of capitalism, like a logo. The poets before them – the Misty poets – had one style, this misty style. The Fei Fei poets – I felt a kinship with them.”Looking through his Taoist prism, Jensen finds a natural kinship between painting and poetry. Both forms are a means of getting a little closer to the truth of existence, to seeing more clearly the phenomenon.
“Poetry is what happens between words,” he said. “And painting is the same thing – they’re things that that happen between people, between phenomena. Poets try to touch a part of people, the psyche, that we’re not normally aware of. And that’s what I try to do in my paintings.”Just how he does that remains a mystery. Jensen may – or may not – start a painting with the idea of a Chinese character in mind. But he has never studied calligraphy, and doesn’t care to. Too much training, he suspects, would spoil the intuitive and spiritual nature of what he does.”It’s not really my feelings. It’s something coming through me. It’s the phenomenon,” he said of how poetry gets translated into visual art. “I may have personal insight, personal anecdotes that may have influenced the work. But I realize that blocks other people’s insights into the work.”
One other source to which Jensen traces his work is his lifelong severe dyslexia. To him, it explains everything from his initial attraction to Chinese poetry – which he says is very simple, and thus uncommonly easy for him to read – to his well-developed visual sense.”I think I’m very lucky to be dyslexic,” he said. “The visual side of the brain will not shut down for the cognitive side. It’s a plus, a great gift. Almost all the great artists I know are either dyslexic or attention-deficit.”As strong an inspiration as it has been, Jensen has not yet visited China. “I’m warming up to it,” he explained, adding that he has been to Japan. “But it’s quite a trip.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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