by Surpik Angelini
Art Critic and Curator
Jeff Jennings's art captures the exuberance of patterns in nature and personal calligraphic markings within abstract color field paintings and geometric wood constructions.
Since the mid-70s, the artist's work has evolved in two directions. On one hand, a strong tendency toward expressionistic drawing and brushwork, which initially included the human figure and, on the other hand, equal mastery of a constructivist type of two or three-dimensional composition.
In fact, reconciling successfully these two opposite tendencies - the abstract and the organic - seems to be the leitmotif in the work. Jennings's playful compositions, consisting of a dominant geometric field containing minor themes elaborated with brush strokes or markings that may look accidental, or like "found graffiti," strike the eye in fresh and unexpected ways. These unusual qualities extend to the artist's palette of harmonious or dissonant colors, which appropriately accent or counterpoint the rhythm of his compositions. There is a deliberate virtuosity in pushing certain formal limits in Jennings's art, something that parallels similar "tours de force" in instrumental jazz solos.
Not surprisingly, architectural elements (clapboard facades, stucco walls, signage, graffiti) observed along streets like Burnside Avenue in Portland, Oregon and Tchoupitoulas Street in New Orleans have been major urban influences in Jennings's art. His early boatyard work in Maine also left indelible traces, as seen in his recent curvilinear wood constructions. Even though the contextual is not frequent in the artist's body of work, it tweaks our curiosity when, for example, it is hidden in a niche filled with shreds of a New Orleans phone book, inserted within a larger color field painting, or when a man's silhouette is superimposed on newspaper cuttings, and then veiled by rain-like dabs of white paint, or the passage of time is captured in layers of color patina. There is more to Jennings's abstraction than what meets the eye.
There are obvious formal influences in the artist's work. From his early training in Portland, he emerges as a figurative expressionist, emulating California-based artists like Nathan Oliveira. Later on, a "cooler" tendency toward abstraction sets in. Richard Diebenkorn's orthogonal compositions seem to explode in his three dimensional frame-like paintings containing abstract frescoes. Or Mario Merz's grids and mappings, combined with Tony Cragg's conceptual objects, leave traces in his phone books, covered with wood veneer and then arranged like a stack of bricks. We also note, the artist's interest in Arte Povera, and its history of the material, when he participates in New Orleans's social experiment in the 90s, as a mass of guns from the community was retrieved and destroyed. The artist embeds dismantled guns inside the pages of New Orleans phone books. Notwithstanding, retrospectively, such experiments with conceptualism proved to be only temporary in Jennings's career.
The latest constructions - since the artist relocated to Houston - consist of arching curvilinear forms that are either freestanding or protruding from the wall. Subtle contortions evoke spiral organic growth. On the surface of intersecting planes, Jennings applies a variety of painted patterns using found or made up stencils: geometric, organic, identifiable ethnic designs. At times, hidden in the folds of a beautiful arching form, we might find an engaging map the artist proudly reproduces because it shows the "Mississippi's meandering change in the course of the years, before the levees were built." This specific detail touchingly alludes to Katrina. In fact, in broader terms, all of Jennings's pieces seem to point out how our constructed geometry attempts to contain forces in nature. "We structure our world using grids, ...we seek to order the chaotic world, by mapping it," states the artist.
With this statement, Jeff Jennings reminds us that the tension between the abstract and the organic is a universal one. We find it in maps, in the contrast of macro and micro views of the world, solid objects versus open fields, musical notes on a pentagram ...the examples are endless. Jennings's sense of wonderment reconnects the viewer to a primordial perception: abstract yet inextricably human.