I wondered for a while about the opening quote of Neil Jenney’s new show, “American Realism Today,” at Gagosian’s Madison Avenue gallery. “I’m governed by nature. Anything I do, I want it to feel natural,” wrote the Connecticut-born artist of bad, good, and “new good” paintings. If one is governed by nature, wouldn’t it already permeate in everything one does, thinks, feels, receives, and to what extent is nature a mere projection of our will more than any lived reality?
“American Realism Today” presents 15 atmospheric works by Neil Jenney (b.1945) from 1992 onwards, comprising paintings and ink paper-based works. It features Jenney’s most recent large-scale series, “Modern Africa” (2015-), which includes five oil-on-canvas paintings enhanced with dark-painted thick and heaven wooden frames that provides a dramatic, cinematic contrast which we also find in other artworks presented, such as North American Vegetae (2006–07), North America Depicted (2015) or North America Divided (1992–94). “The frame is the architectural foreground that presents the illusion,” Jenney shared in 2016 interview with Observer, as he sought sculpture in painting and to channel his attention to the relevant, from his early career in the 1960s departing from the Zeitgeist of Pop Art and Minimalism.
The show explores emotional range and reimagined representation through stripped form and characteristic brush strokes that magnify depth and texture in a geography sitting beyond time. While North American Vegetae presents a horizontal, panoramic window to a lush, edenic, Florida-like tropical ecosystem, the “North America Divided” series questions societal fault lines in reinvented gardens that are guarded not by picket fences but barbed wire.
Amid this landscape, “Modern Africa” emulates a style previously experimented and refined since Atmospheric Formation (2005) through close-ups or vignette-like depopulated scenes that ambition to capture an essence. Except that instead of peeking at the collection of an imaginary natural history museum or botanical garden, it sends us to an artificial space of striking absence—of modernity, of pulsating bodies, of life itself.
Modern Africa #1 shows the remnants of obelisks and columns buried under the sand, with faded human footprints lit by an invisible moon in a Prussian blue gradient sky. Moonlight reverberates against the undulating curves of sand dunes evoking transience and the oneiric realm.
In Modern Africa #3, in which a green-colored tarpaulin is tied to the pillar of a submerged white column, Jenney invents “an unknown culture”, not quite Egyptian, not quite Roman, which to him, espouses the idea of “Modern Africa.” Here also, shadows illustrate a sense of refuge and omen, a duality in representation.
Modern Africa #4 exposes a primeval crocodile moving in the sand among fragments of tipped-over columns blocks. The crocodile appears victorious, omnipotent, well-fed yet hungry with the wavelike motion of its tail propelling it to unknown horizons. Jenney conveyed that he wanted to incorporate a Nilotic element to this piece to channel the Aswan Dam and labor-intensive works of ancient infrastructures.
The last painting of the series depicts two green, near-oxidized sphinxes and their elongated shadows. Only their heads escape the sand. In Modern Africa #5, these anthropomorphized facial features communicate a sense of gravity, with their fixed gaze staring obliquely at a far distance. Behind the sphinxes, the top of an architectural structure emerges out of the sand. At the forefront of the scene, we recognized hermeneutic footprints, old, dough-like, furtive, leaving a two-dimensional trail from an unspecified visit.
Yet in the desire to capture what evokes the natural and the noumenal, Jenney transposes foreignness; his creative ambition to reinterpret uncanniness interrogates on the borders and porosity of indigeneity. “Modern” is ironic given how passé the artworks’ aesthetics feel, crushed by the overbearing shadow of Romantic ruinophiliac obsessions and Jenney’s longing for a chlorophyll-deprived version of “the natural”.
“Modern Africa” seems to be a parabolic take on a very ancient nowhere. Jenney drew inspiration from the 1910 travelog of a wealthy French man’s escapade, infused with Orientalist imagination. Jenney admits to having never visited Africa in a recent interview (a continent, not a country, as if one—sadly—needed a reminder). “Never been to England. I am not a traveler. Never been to Italy. Never been to Greece. Never been anywhere. Nope. I like staying home,” he said.
By placing this series under the themes of “civilization and Mother Nature,” in itself contradictory, Jenney essentializes a continent he doesn’t even know. He misses critical contextual information such as when he refers to the decorum of Leptis Magna (shown in Modern Africa #2) as Roman, glossing over complex history, notably the site’s former status as a Carthaginian colony and, even before then, a land first belonging to the Amazighen people. Not every column built comes from the Capitol.
The symbols of ancient Egyptian culture become vulgar props to a would-be Ozymandian, transcending quest towards timelessness. Jenney’s “Modern Africa” falls short of a radical, Surrealist proposal and shrinks to the miniature of a kitsch background when it could have offered the possibility of a vibrant homage to bustling countries and cultures (plural matters). It reminds of Star Wars and Planet of the Apes in its lore, echoing the aridity of a soliloquy that inadvertently fossilizes vitality.
In “Modern Africa” I had expected more than the survival of an anachronistic fantasy given Jenney’s sharpness in capturing tension and the criticality of a glimpse to condense a survey. Relying on utilitarian structures and motifs, Jenney may have diluted his original intent to reconcile or provide a personal spin on an age-old divide between nature and culture. As with Melania Trump’s Tintin in Congo outfit and her safari helmet when she visited 21st-century Egypt, Ghana and other countries in Africa a few years ago, there is little contemporary Africanness in these new works, which I almost wished had been painted in Jenney’s former “bad painting” style of the mid-1970s (a term coined by art critic and curator Marcia Tucker) as a pastiche to dated visual codes of lusty, classical picturesque decay that could be more interestingly explored in drosscapes or other forms.
Susan Stewart (On Longing, 1992) recalled how Jean Baudrillard posited that “the indigenous object fascinates by means of its anteriority.” The exotic is “warm” because it inscribes itself in a mythology reminiscent of childhood abstractions. The exotic object is “a distance appropriated” and its souvenir is both a “specimen and trophy” intimately linked with the possessor.
Iraqi-American artist Michael Rakowitz had underscored the paradox of how white people and institutions consecrate value to ancient artifacts and their provenance (for instance, Nimrud or Palmyra) far more than to the living residents and locals from these places (undesired migrants).
In 2022, I want to see Africa in all its diverse physicality, especially if placed under the expectation of “realism”, that is, the ordinary, the banal, the pictorial that we daily encounter. I want to celebrate black and brown bodies, cultures and radical expressions because if not now, truly when?