A swimmer submerged in water, menaced by sharks, their dorsal fins slice knife-like through turbulent seas, reaches out for the safety to an orange and black inflatable life raft. Neil Jenney’s Threat and Sanctuary is a brazen presentation of oppositions: figuration encounters abstraction, realism meets expressionism, vision complements language, art making grips social content. Oppositions that are put in play appear to complement rather than contradict, to create a unitary surface, rather than a disjunctive division. As the artist averred, “abstraction and realism exist side by side.” Describing a dialectic of exchanges and mutations between the two, Jenney recalled that “Years ago I predicted that a return to realism was inevitable. A realism that is a kind of expressionism” (N. Jenney quoted by P. Gardner, Neil Jenney: The Bad Years, 1969-70, New York, 2001, p. 6).
In 1968, The New Museum in New York exhibited works by fourteen artists, Jenney among them, which the adventurous curator and director of the New Museum at the time, Marcia Tucker, titled “‘Bad’ Painting.” The work on view was transgressive in execution—at least by standards during the late 1960s in which color field painting, minimalist anti-authorial geometric forms fabricated from industrial material, earth works, Pop art, performance art, and Photo-realism vied for center stage. Tucker meant her title to be ironic: the work was not really “bad,” but rather defiant. Opposed to finished surfaces, antithetical to the vaunting of materials and flatness per se, beyond Pop’s visual references to mass commodities, traditional illusionism, or tasteful draftsmanship, this work was iconoclastic in its boldly “unconcerned” representation, in Jenney’s verbal formulation. These works’ challenges to prevailing norms of execution were spatial and chromatic, undermining normative displays of skill, technique, and finish.
Threat and Sanctuary’s radicality lies in the style of Jenney’s figuration, created out of an expressive technique of muscular bands and surface scorings with the “wrong” end of the brush or other blunt instrument. Jenney’s highly individual style states an allover pictorial logic: while the left side of the canvas depicts “threat” the middle and right side present the preferred “sanctuary,” a place of safety. Yet by extension, “sanctuary” can also suggest, metaphorically, a sacred place, a spiritual haven, generally entirely surrounded (or framed) such that one is contained and protected. In Threat and Sanctuary, however, the lifeboat is precariously open, the “frame,” inflated and thus easily punctured. The proximity of the sharks to the swimmer is as close as that of the shark to the place of safety. The raft’s reflection in the water is scored with undulating lines that extend into the water, both toward and around the submerged swimmer, while additional orthogonal lines underscore the shark’s threat. This disruption of the painterly surface with such scoring dates back at least to Rembrandt as a means of activating the picture surface. Drips are willful, almost superimposed, creating further counterpoint to the painterly texture. The narrational character of the present work is emphasized: confronted with this startling image, the viewer moves from area to area, searching for a central point of focus: what is the back-story? What will the outcome be? Imminent danger is embedded throughout. The tension is inherent and utterly unrelieved; it is both direct and unresolved. We move from a specific narrative to a universal condition.
Jenney’s framing is a crucial factor here: the frame separates the illusionistic image from the real world while at the same time ensures that Jenney’s painting is understood as an object, a three-dimensional form related to sculpture, while the scoring is almost a form of linear writing, a way of conveying meaning through language. Title and frame reinforce the picture’s status as an object – even projecting its universal status as an icon. In this way, the formation of the subject becomes realistic and literal, such that form and content, image and literature, merge. The “alloverness” of the scene – the lack of a horizon line, a frontal presentation to the viewer, the interplay between shallow depth and flattened surface with merely a hint of deep perspective, a slight modeling reduced almost to contour drawing – creates a pictorial unity that is inescapable: Jenney admits no division despite the set-up of a seemingly binary mode of address.
Another version, painted just a few months before the present work, resides in the permanent collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art. Shortly after completing that painting, Jenney returned to the theme on the same grand scale to create the present work. This time, the sharks have crept forebodingly closer to the swimmer, almost encircling him and acutely heightening the tension and danger. A reflection has also appeared under the raft. In addition, Jenney learned of a new color, international orange, then recently introduced as a requirement for all lifeboats. In Threat and Sanctuary, he updates the color of the lifeboat to comply with these new standards. Here Jenney again inclines toward a traditional color-coded system, whereby his allover field—blue for sky or water, brown for floors or dirt, and green for grass—presents realistic rather than metaphoric relationships of color to form. “I don’t try to make my statement with color, space and composition—but I use color, space, composition to make the pieces coherent” (N. Jenney, “Statements by Neil Jenney, 1970,” ibid., p. 45).
Jenney’s personal vision is unique; it is also highly thematic and relational. Contiguity of subject to object and painterly to the elemental means of its depiction is striking for the sense that a represented object is not only surrounded by, but also forcefully filled out by, the space of painting, as if the surface might implode not through the fullness of technique, but through the elemental force of Jenney’s ideas. “I am interested in using imagery that is universal and transcultural—and an imagery that is profound. I wanted the objects to be stated emphatically with no psychological implications” (Ibid., p. 11) In this sense, Threat and Sanctuary exudes breathtaking vitality; it presents Jenney at the peak of this singular moment in his decades-long production, where “a natural order of aggression” inheres in the artist’s deeply poetic, humanistic/social vision (ibid., p. 11).