Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Art Seen: Keeping it simple on a whole new level

Chris Jenness came into my gallery many years ago, wanting to frame a number of small pastel drawings he had created. At the time, my inside exhibition room had rotating exhibits of many artists, just a few pieces from each. I expressed an interest in his work, and recommended that he show some of it in my gallery. He acted surprised that I would like it, but I have since learned that humbleness is just a part of his character. He has a creative well that seems always available, and the necessary energy to finish the projects he starts.

The exhibit that currently is running at the Kenai Peninsula College Gary L. Freeburg Gallery is from a series of acrylic works exploring the “Details” of comic strip panels. Whereas Roy Lichtenstein was known for painting large canvases of individual comic strip panels, Jenness takes it further, by looking even closer and dramatically cropping.

There is a kind of awe present when the application process of the paint virtually vanishes and all the viewer can see are large areas of perfectly flat color. Jenness’ design sense is basically flawless, and each of the works has enjoyable shapes and lines that seduce the eye. He certainly utilizes humor in his approach, as do most pop artists, although sometimes I am aware that it is an inside joke — and one I don’t necessarily need to get in order to enjoy the pure aesthetics of the piece.

The college at which I finished my bachelor of fine arts degree was the State University of New York at Oswego, where Lichtenstein taught for a while. There was an unprotected mural he had done in one of the stairwells in the art building. By the time I was there in the late 1980s, he had already gained quite a bit of notoriety, so I was amazed that the stairway was still in use and that the painting was completely accessible. But there is something necessarily accessible about pop art; images we are familiar with, but produced in such a way as to incite new feelings about them.

Jenness’ work certainly follows in that tradition. There is just enough of the recognizable to gain our trust, and enough precision and design sensibility to really appeal to our senses. As Lichtenstein said himself in an interview in 1997, “The subject matter helps because there’s a reference to reality. Some kind of reality, anyway.”

Jenness was born on the Navajo reservation in Arizona in 1973 and spent his high school years in a small town near El Paso, Texas. College and a biology scholarship found him, but he only stayed in the science building for two years before he shocked everyone and transferred to an art major. It was a good match, and he focused on the still-new genre of computer design. A couple of internships and lots of art classes later, Jenness graduated from Stephen F. Austin State University with a bachelor of fine arts degree and worked in the design arena for a while. The adventurous streak and teaching career of his wife, Carla, brought them to Alaska in August 1999.

A job in the composition department at the Peninsula Clarion helped pay the bills while Jenness continued to hone his art — both computer-based and pastel. He has worked part time and full time as a teacher, as well as starting his own commercial art business, Jenness Graphic Design, allowing him to work throughout the state, as well as nationally. He has had numerous solo exhibitions all over the Kenai Peninsula and in Anchorage, and continues to tap that creative well. His show “Details” is on display until April 3.

Zirrus VanDevere is a local mixed-media artist and owns Art Works gallery in Soldotna. She has bachelor’s degrees in fine arts and education.

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