Neil Jenney, Man and Challenge (1969), acrylic on canvas and painted wood frame, 59-1/2″ x 79-3/8″
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It should be noted at the outset that the paintings featured in Neil Jenney: The Bad Years 1969-70, an exhibition currently at the uptown branch of Gagosian Gallery, aren’t really bad–at least not bad bad. That pejorative adjective, in Mr. Jenney’s case, comes with scare quotes a mile high and connotes an art that combines the dead-end figuration of Pop, the dead-end materiality of Minimalism and a sense of humor that is, if not dead-end, then sharply deadpan.
Mr. Jenney painted the pictures during the heyday of Conceptual Art; if they were, in part, a rebuff to its disembodied verities, they also partook of its intellectual detachment.
Each canvas is a bluntly stated relationship between a pair of objects or people. These are either cause-and-effect post-mortems–the drollest of the lot being Sawn and Saw (1969)–or numb distillations of psychological tension. Mr. Jenney paints his scenarios with an expedience appropriate to their tight-lipped comedy. His brushstrokes–drippy, slippery and thin–roil dispassionately, covering each inch of the canvas with a take-it-or-leave-it uniformity.
Such stylings are slick, yet not without nuance. Check out the precisely chiseled contours of the title figures in Beasts and Burdens (1969) and try to argue that the artist isn’t, in his own shrewd way, good. When Mr. Jenney makes fun of his own proficiency, as he does in Brushed and Broomed (1969), he’s almost likable.
Still, these aren’t paintings; they’re cartoons. Stylish cartoons and smart, too, but artists who make one-dimensionality their forte tend to wear out their welcome quickly. Mr. Jenney does so round about the third or fourth canvas.
Originally published in the April 16, 2001 edition of The New York Observer.