Malia Jensen has emerged from a generation of younger sculptors who express content through a language of hybrid objects, rather than continuing last century’s aesthetic exploration of art about art. Her recent exhibition “Conjunctions,” at the Richard Gray Gallery in Chicago, forged adroit combinations of materials and meanings to fabricate sculpture of physical, conceptual, and metaphorical depth. Wildness and domesticity, “reality” and myth, humor and melancholy, jeopardy and sanctuary, clarity and obscurity, impropriety and elegance, mischief and tragedy, the unnerving and the darling, the conceptual and the handmade—all intermingle slyly and at many levels in Jensen’s sculpture, which embodies contradiction. The tension between opposing elements causes a temporary short circuit in meanings, creating what she calls “a third thing,” a new, often unnerving reality Seal + Penguin 4 Ever (2008) offers a good example of her tongue-in-cheek approach to “coupling” disparate parts for conceptual purposes. At one level, Seal is an outré representation of the hegemony currently enjoyed by unusual materials in sculpture: a polyester resin seal covered in shiny auto body paint (symbolizing the contemporary) straddles a penguin in patinated bronze (representing the traditional). The work is based on a bizarre story recently reported on the BBC: two wildly different animals, a seal and a penguin, were seen mating. Seal’s blend of impropriety and absurdity epitomizes Jensen’s delight in transgression, even as it offers up her sarcastic anger at discordant and inappropriate human dominance over the natural world, a recurring theme in her work.
This is sculpture that periodically skirts an unsavory edge as it cheerfully dismantles the longstanding Western penchant for thinking about the world in binary terms—mental/manual, intellect/body, culture/nature, good/bad. The work represents an unmannerly critique of enduring 17th-century philosophical premises represented by Descartes’s “I think, therefore I am,” where the act of thinking—not feeling—assures us of our existence and splits the world into a “superior” mental sphere of intellectual activity and a “lowly” body trapped in its material nature. This mindset has historically tainted the aesthetic status of sculpture, located as it is in the three-dimensional, everyday world of “dumb objects.”
But Jensen unifies the ways in which we take meaning from the world: her sculpture allows technical virtuosity and materials to mingle equally with abstract metaphor and linguistic play to achieve an ironic punch. These aesthetic works echo the cultural theorist Bill Brown’s call for “a comparatively new idiom, beginning with the effort to think with or through the physical object world…to establish a genuine sense of the things that comprise the stage on which human action, including the action of thought, unfolds.” Jensen calls her sculptures “thinking tools,” adding: “I think in objects, so I’m interested in a very clear language of things. Linguistically, I am interested in how ideas exist without a language. Objects exist without a language. I’m interested in ideas that come in through the gut, the intuition that then rises up to the brain.”
Not surprisingly, much of Jensen’s sculpture focuses on just what the Cartesian “cogito” attempts to cast out—the animal in all of us. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, humans were given sovereignty over the animal world. Yet, antithetically, even as humans have parsed what is "animal" to define the "human," so we have from ancient times drawn on animal qualities of power and the supernatural to expand our own identities. Just as Claude Levi-Strauss’s epigram “animals are good to think with” destabilized the boundaries between humans and animals (they teach us how to sharpen our perceptions), so Jensen’s use of animal subjects to describe psychological plight violates longstanding assumptions about the superiority of human acumen. Her anthropomorphic Bathing Skunk (2000–08), for example, embodies the essence of what it feels like (for a human, presumably) to be in a quandary: it’s the image of a happily odorous skunk who, disconcertedly, finds its body cast from pristine soap and wax.
Patinated bronze, cast cotton paper, and watercolor, 75 x 11 x 21 in.
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