Jeff Jennings /
Jeff Jennings was born and raised on the coast of Maine, in Belfast and Camden and lived in New Orleans for 20 years prior to moving to Houston Texas in 2007 with his wife Maureen Jennings. His work has been included in numerous gallery and museum exhibitions throughout the southern United States, with solo shows at the Contemporary Art Museum and the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, in New Orleans, at the Art Museum of Southeast Texas in Beaumont, and most recently at the Nave Museum in Victoria TX held in January 2015.
Recently my work has shifted away from architectural references to more organic forms and structures in nature, and how man-made structures and forms interact with the natural environment. I am interested in how forms develop in nature, and also how we reference these forms in the structures we build. One example being the early designs of ship hulls based on the shape of a fish.
How does form translate from one material to another? I work primarily in wood, paper and metal. How do these materials relate to each other, and how do they differ? It is fascinating that a book made of paper might last two thousand years, and a ship made of steel ends up a rusty heap in less than a hundred. It is the environment they inhabit that shapes their existence, and the drawings of an object quite often outlasts the object.
Mappings, the of Jeff Jennings
by Surpik Angelini
Founder and director of Transart Foundation for Contemporary Art and Anthropology.
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.
Nau-haus Exhibition 2008 and Examples of Early Works
END OF THE LINE.
By Surpik Angelini
This exhibition of paintings is a meditation on life and death. The artist, Jeff Jennings, known previously for his constructivist abstract paintings and sculptures, has returned to an earlier version of his figurative work. This time, the artist uses the powerful figure of maritime vessels in shipbreaking yards, involving different stages of mutilation, dismantling, deconstruction and ultimate destruction. It is an allegory of death. The return to figuration, after a sustained exploration of abstraction, is rhyzomatic in Jennings’ case. The work combines the evocative effect of open brushstrokes defining the overwhelming scale of the surrounding atmosphere of sea and sky, while the more defined silhouettes of the fragmented ships reveal the Pyranesian complexity of their inner spatiality and structure.
These vessels, dismantled in estranged shipyards far from the world where they originated, are charged with meaning. Traces of the life they carried within exude from every fragment extracted from the whole. Their painful death is heightened by its staged scene of forced exile, in wastelands where humans and objects become interchangeable scrap.
Jennings first witnessed these forsaken landscapes through poignant documentaries such as Manufactured Landscapes and the photographic work by Edward Burtynsky. But only after experiencing the Bangladesh shipbreaking yard first hand did he feel the full impact of the drama unfolding before his eyes. The work that is now collected in this exhibition is a meditation on the objective and subjective “mise en abyme” of the human and physical degradation of the environment. The small paintings, conceived in a 12”x12” square format, frontally focus on each severed ship, its inner structures suggesting phantom buildings re-imagined as silos, cathedrals, barns, skyscrapers, modernist monuments.
Yet for all their multifarious suggestiveness, the overriding sensation in these small works is of great stillness and an aloofness that touches on the metaphysical. These small portraits of monumental vessels stand alone in a timeless, alien atmosphere. We could be looking at them through the eyes of de Chirico or Morandi. The purity of their geometry, their centered focus, invites us to prolongate the duration of our gaze. They almost function as Mandalas, something that is even more evident in the pieces rendered in a circular format.
The large scale paintings, some as large as 80”x 80,” present us with two aspects of the unfathomable, or what philosopher Edmund Burke called The Sublime. First, we are confronted with the vastness of the abysmal wasteland in which these ships come to shore and, then in other instances, as we get a closer look at the ships, the mysterious labyrinths of their entrails are either evoked or openly revealed.Walter Benjamin once observed how industrial ruins were romanticized in the twentieth century. Still relevant today, we can appreciate this aesthetic in the work of Anselm Kiefer and Bernd and Hilla Becher. Jeff Jennings shares this sensibility, adding to the aesthetic his own personal history. He has witnessed two kinds of catastrophic ruins in two cities he has called home. First, the natural devastation caused by Katrina in New Orleans, where he lived from 1986 to 2007. The other, in the form of man-made ruins seen in Houston’s continuous razing of relatively new structures to make room for more profitable buildings. Both forms allude to Benjamin’s vision of the industrial ruin. It is not surprising after Jennings’ intimate relationship with New Orleans that, as an artist, he found a gripping attraction to Bangladesh with its port city of Chittagong equidistantly located exactly half way around the world from Louisiana. It is a river delta as well, with similar weather and a poverty level that challenges the worst post-Katrina scenario.
Jennings’ exhibition End of the Line can be considered an elegy to remains of civilization embedded in the ruins of human creations. It is a thoughtful reminder in a world that financially thrives in erasing these beautiful monumental creatures. Each painting can be seen as a portrait of a particular vessel, standing for a plethora of rich human experience. Each vessel presents itself as a distinct identity: Constance, Veronique Delmas, Gardenia Ace … all destined to be forgotten, if not for the art that keeps their poetic presence alive.
Founder and director of Transart Foundation for Contemporary Art and Anthropology.