Article by Sarah Gretsch; Friday, Mar. 22, 2013
Last Sunday the Berlinische Galerie awarded its Fred Thieler Prize for painting to Sergej Jensen. At first glance Jensen’s minimalist painting technique streaked across enormous canvas married with pieces of fiber or thick blotches of paint feels a little too familiar. Take Mark Rothko, Robert Ryman or Anselm Kiefer just to name a few. Perhaps this familiarity is exactly why he won. After all, the prize was born out the fear of this medium’s death in the early 1990s when painting was threatened especially by mediums picking up speed such as performance and video art. Fred Thieler donated the prize as a nostalgic attempt to bring back talents like those in the 1960s when painting was at its peak. Jensen draws from this painting technique–– but takes it one step further.
Most apparent of this pushing of limits stand the two starkly white, typically German public bathroom doors, each resting upon a pair of shoes that stand proudly and awkwardly in a painting exhibit. Jensen obviously likes to play with his identity as a “painter.” Or it could just be that this sculpture piece, which was actually created for this exhibit and added rather last minute by the artist, is a statement of autonomy once he had already won the prize. It’s not just these doors that are puzzling. Take, “Untitled” from 2008, hung on the rear wall that at first appears as a canvas neatly washed over with a neutral brown but is actually a huge horizontal piece of fabric with two accents of red fabric sewed into gaps on the upper edge. No paint? That’s the point. Not only does Jensen play with the canvas, painting materials and techniques… he also plays with his audience. Alongside all these canvases and at a position difficult to determine, Jensen makes us believe something is a painting just from the surroundings and a little string holding together torn off bits of fabric that acts as an illusion of the canvas edge.
Humor is a repertoire of most artists of Jensen’s generation but with him it’s hard to tell if it’s merely a practical joke or social commentary. At times he is mildly ironic as with his piece “Burger” depicting a mess of a canvas only understood once the title is known. Another piece, “Why? Kriminalität,” whether intended or not, looks rather like the blood stained carpet of a crime scene or vomit. Then there’s “Untitled” from 2013 which is reminiscent of the moment you lifted up in horror that century old beloved couch cushion. “Untitled” from 2005 is a divergent piece that seems more like social commentary, intertwining woven bags with the repetition of the Deutsche Bundesbank label.
Beyond the paintings with indeterminate meaning, Jensen’s works impart connotation through technique alone. At the same time that he is critical of the medium of painting, Jensen also plays with it through wipe or brush techniques and the placement of works and their relationship to wall surface. With paint-matted string hanging over edges or sewed up tears in canvas, one can almost see how Jensen’s hands aggressively attempt to pull every inch of potential out of the painting.
Sarah Gretsch is living in Germany since January 2012. Originally from the United States, where she pursued her Bachelor’s in Art history, she is now continuing her studies in Berlin.