By JONATHAN GOODMAN, May, 2018
Elisa Jensen, a long-time Brooklyn resident, is having a show at David & Schweitzer Contemporary in Bushwick. Her offering, which argues for a bronze-age reading of Brooklyn contemporary art, consists of a wall installation of diminutive golden boats, a group of small paintings, a few larger paintings, and a bench on which to view the exhibition in its entirety. The walls are painted in black, and add to an experience of mystical involvement, an unspoken but pervasive experience in the artist’s work. Jensen takes a strong interest in the Celtic imagination; this is both part of her background and an intellectual and emotional pursuit. The show amounts to a miniature retrospective of the artist, whose efforts can be seen as not-quite-occult investigations into phenomena beyond our ken. This means that the works have to be understood not only with the eye but also with the imagination. Doing so allows her audience to appreciate the art’s direct mediation with invisible, but also cultural, matters.
Likely the first thing the viewer notices on coming into the space is the side wall of scores of small gold boats. Titled 100 Gold Boats (2018), the group of roughly four- or five-inch golden vessels quickly feels oriented toward the land of the dead. And so it is: Jensen is illustrating, or duplicating, a Danish story about a smithy who fashioned small, gold-colored boats to conduct the dead into the netherworld. As happens in most of Jensen’s art, it is important to know its visionary applications (we sometimes gain knowledge from her titles). In this case, the environment, spread out over a long expanse, feels cumulatively evocative. Just in what direction toward nether regions do the dead make their way? It is hard to tell, but the boats remind us that all of us face a time when we pass from one world to another, presumably with the help of able transport. This is something the installation very nicely illustrates. But also, according to an artist’s statement, the boats also indicate the wish for, and the truth of, a return to life on earth.
Jensen’s paintings tend to be on the smaller side and are often darkly illuminated. Again, they point to her otherworldly bent. Cosmic Egg, Fair Wheel (2018) presents a whorl of green lines, spiraling in space. The title refers to cosmic elements in Nordic mythology; the fair wheel is a kenning, or poetic compound word, for the sun, found in the poetic Eddas, which are medieval Icelandic lyric writings. The work’s literary origins seem distant to the image, though. Here Jensen’s mysticism carries well as imagery alone. The eye is drawn into and over the coil of green tubular forms, interwoven with bracelet-like imagery. One senses the picture as a central mythic device, meant to embody a deep-seated concentration of energies, solar and other. Viking (2017) is quite small: six inches square. But it communicates a highly concentrated spiritual emanation in its pattern of linked lines and circles, and also dots, painted black on an orange ground. Shield-like in its presence, Viking refers to a time when decoration played a large role in cultural practice.
Another small painting, called Solstice (Sunstone) (2018), looks to a time of the year when the sun resolutely shifts. Smallish, a foot square, the image consists of differently hued streaks of color, issuing outward toward the viewer from a circular pattern. Mostly blue in color, the streaks establish a resilient image of movement, in which the sun is invoked indirectly. We are taken in by the streaming lines of color, but also by the central dark opening. As happens here and elsewhere in the artist’s work, the image’s strength is buttressed by belief. Generally speaking, this excellent body of work engages its audience not only through ancient cultural memory but also through its present-day appropriation. Sitting on the Seat of the Calliagh (2017), made of styrofoam and cement, Jensen’s viewers feel like they are slowly being taken on a journey beyond their knowledge. The bench’s name refers to what Jensen calls “a neolithic hag’s chair,” found in an archeological site in Ireland. We are not all the witch goddesses Jensen has us imitate by sitting on the chair; however, many of us are inclined toward a life made richer by belief, as these paintings and installation and chair make clear. They point the way toward a heavenly perception, locking art to spiritual endeavor. WM
Johnathan Goodman is a writer in New York who has written for Artcritical, Artery and the Brooklyn Rail among other publications.
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