The painter Neil Jenney has found a way to rescue viewers drowning in the new.
His strong, coherent paintings, now hanging at the Corcoran, have resolved one chief dilemma of contemporary art. Jenney understands that images engulf us, that he who makes a picture merely adds a tiny drop to a raging torrent. His paintings seem designed to float upon that flood.
They are not one thing, they are many. Each one is an emblem, but an emblem of a thousand half-familiar thoughts. Jenney has been praised as a father of "New Image" painting, as a master of "Bad Art" and as a man who in the stasis of the '70s somehow glimpsed the new. Jenney prefers to call himself a "New Realist." New York thirsts for labels, but labels do not mean a lot. He is a 35-year-old New Yorker and a gifted, careful craftsman. But he is less a realist than a synthesist. The newest thing about his art is how much old art it embraces.
Opposition may be Jenney's central subject. Almost every picture here -- and every sculpture, too, even the abstract ones from the last years of the '60s -- relates a dichotomy, a conflict, a division, a sadness or a threat. A little girl, dissolved in tears, stands weeping on a lawn; beside her on the grass lies her decapitated doll. In "Them and US" (1969), a Russian MIG accompanies -- or challenges -- an American jet fighter. In "Here and There" (1970), a white wooden fence divides a grassy field. Beside the stately chestnut tree that rules "Meltdown Morning" (1975), is the sweetly colored mushroom cloud of a nuclear disaster. In "Threat and Sanctuary" (1970), the startled, shipwrecked viewer swimming toward a life raft finds his path to safety barred by a man-eating octopus. At first these pictures threaten. But no sooner is the threat perceived than memories pour in, memories that soothe the mind, explain and reassure.
That white fence calls to mind a thousand rural landscapes by Andrew Wyeth's clones. That octopus suggests as many scary movies. Why is that girl weeping? No one who remembers the miseries of childhood will fail to find an answer.
Jenney spent his childhood in the little town of Westfield, in western Massachusetts. "I delivered papers every winter. That's how I found art. One guy on my route owned a house full of pictures. I saw them every day, year in and year out." The scene, as he describes it, could be one of Norman Rockwell's -- the chilled and pink-cheeked paper boy, the big house down the block, fresh snow on the boughs -- but Jenney's neighbor's pictures were not Norman Rockwells. They were anguished raw abstractions of the postwar New York School. Jenney's eerie pictures of the early '70s have as much in common with those, say, of de Kooning as they do with Rockwell's. Like Rockwell's they tell stories easily perceived. Like de Kooning's they are built of drips and violent brushstrokes. Countless memories are summoned by the quickly comprehended icons Jenney shows us -- the lawn, the tree, the danger, the child or the plane.
The way he paints his pictures, meanwhile, suggests a dozen different sorts of new and antique art.
There is Pop Art in his work. That air battle is tied, through comic books, to Roy Lichtenstein; that fence is as evocative as an Andy Warhol soup can. There is action painting here in the brush strokes and the drips. Jenney's lawns and skies are monochromatic color fields. The large titles on his pictures recall all the wordiness of recent conceptual art. The mysteries he shows us -- square clouds in the sky, a levitated kitchen chair -- are straight out of the dreams of Rene' Magritte. And the heavy, shadow-box "mantel" frames he wraps around his paintings point out the oddest aspect of his new New York art. Jenney, who 12 years ago made sculpture out of junk, neon tubes and timber, has, of late, been painting luminist oils that recall the '60s less than they do the 19th century.
Though raised on abstract art, and fond of it as well, Jenney early on decided that "realism was the way to go, and that realism did not need have to mean dependence on the camera. I thought the dynamic of realism was relating one object to another."
By relating the child to the doll, the jet plane to the drip, the antique frame to the cartoon, duality to oneness -- and by holding the whole mix in amazing equilibrium -- Jenney has allied each piece in this exhibit to a thousand others. His paintings do not fight to overthrow the others with which they are surrounded. They strive to coexist.
They easily accept the neon of the city street, Rene' Magritte and Nancy and Terry and the Pirates, the late shows of TV and the 19th-century oils with which the Corcoran is filled. What makes Jenney's art significant, and memorable, is the ease with which it reaches back to gobble up the past.
The last picture in his show may well be the best. It's called "North America Abstracted." It is dated 1980. Its eerie forms suggest railroad ties and deserts, clouds, plank bridges, and smooth shark-like jet planes. It calls to mind America the Beautiful, the streamlined 1930s, 19th-century western views and 1980s pioneering. It is a painting of vast promise. "Neil Jenney: New Realist: Painting and Sculpture 1967-1980" was organized by Mark Rosenthal for the University Art Museum, Berkeley. It closes Nov. 8.