Saturday, 13 August 2011


Acrylic on canvas
94 x 195.6 cm
My experience is this: when I look at abstract paintings, while absorbing their chaos and their drama, my mind races off in search of an explanation, even a narrative.  What does the title say? Does it help me interpret the work? Does 'Estuary' anchor me to the real world of tidal flows, wetlands, and changing patterns of clouds and reflections? And why ‘Phenomena’?

Paul Jenkins’s paintings invite the viewer to do something different, to ‘let go’. His intention is to addresses our unconscious mind, since he believes in our need to ‘repudiate the arrogant claim of the conscious mind to be the whole of the psyche’.

Phenomena Wind Column acrylic on canvas  93.3 x 52.1cm
I chose these two works from an exhibition radiantly full of blazing, flame-like shapes and colours. I chose them while reflecting on a link between the title and the canvas.  The puzzle deepens in that in 1959 he began to preface all his mysterious, shifting spaces with the prefix  'Phenomena', followed by an identifying word or phrase. What does that add?

Paul Jenkins’ work is said to belong to no group or movement. The story of his long life, (he is now 93), illustrates a serious and mindful journeying (or pilgrimage?) across continents. There he met and engaged with celebrated artists, art-dealers and critics, philosophers and poets. His intellectual and spiritual search was matched by his interest and experimentation with painting techniques and materials.

I think he has not been served well by many of those who write about his work. On the one hand some admirers spice up their comments with words like ‘magical, primordial, shamanistic’.  He even seems to have a legendary birth story attributed to him, linking his bold use of colours with the fact that he was born during a lightning storm in Kansas City.

But others cannot take him seriously: his work is ‘too pretty’ or ‘too lyrical’.   Where is the gloomy seriousness of the American Abstract Expressionists?  Where, they ask, is the threat and drama? They want a ‘knife among the flowers’.

I bought a Paul Jenkins lithograph in 1998 and it never ceases to delight. I like the translucent veils of colour and that intense jewel-like purity you usually only get in stained glass windows. He  manipulates paint until it is radiant.

The Tate Gallery has one of Jackson’s paintings - Phenomena Yonder Near 1964, but I don’t know if it’s on display.
Catalogue: Paul Jenkins: paintings 1960s and 1970s, introduction by Michael Peppiatt, available from The Redfern Gallery


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