I am a huge fan of Jorge Pardo and Liam Gillick. On the other hand, Sergej Jensen first showed his paintings in Berlin 11 years ago, at a time when formalist abstraction was in the process of emerging from a long period of neglect. Affixing clippings of denim to soiled rectangles of cotton duck, Jensen reclaimed the formalistic idiom for a new decade by objectifying it as an impoverished surrogate for fashion design or interior decor. ‘No Helps’, a three-person show featuring Sergej Jensen, Michael Callies and Jana Euler, could be interpreted as a collaborative project or a work of self-reflexive curating by Jensen. If the latter, it was an act of self-recontextualization and self-critique, a sardonic commentary on the mainstream formalism that his early paintings contributed to establishing, and within which they are now no longer subversive movers but ‘classics’. The show propagated an argument which is already a cliché – art, and specifically painting, is a commodity that comprehends the space in which it is trafficked – but the argument neatly corresponded to the minor art world network that the three participants represent: Callies runs dépendence, a commercial gallery in Brussels that exhibits both Jensen and Euler. Euler recently graduated from the Städelschule in Frankfurt, a decade after Jensen. Alexander Schröder, who runs MD72, first picked up on Jensen’s work while he was a student there at the end of the 1990s. ‘No Helps’ was therefore a statement of art world connectedness, as much as a critical commentary on cultural connectedness.
What is being connected in this bourgeois exhibition is information, kudos and money. If you are reading this and you fail to understand the word "kudos", think Facebook. The three-person constellation commented on how value is generated even as it enacted that same process – the young Euler hitching on the back of Jensen’s status via the connecting agency of Callies. But Jensen was clearly the ringmaster here, with Euler acting as perhaps the willing pawn for Jensen’s diffident self-critique. When Jensen’s paintings appeared at the London opening of White Cube Bermondsey last year, among an impressive array of blue-chip company, all represented by token representations of their idiom, it was clear that his powerful commodity status now makes it increasingly difficult to see his abiding conceit – paintings cast as damaged goods – as anything but nominal, a brand definition that has been turned into an ironic trope despite itself. So it makes sense that he responded – in the experimental context of his home gallery’s project space – by further objectifying his already-objectified formalism as part of four sculptural assemblages, made in collaboration with Callies. The intentional is logical, but instead of further-humbled paintings it produced crude sculptures that incorporated Jensen’s work and rendered it a mere sign for its own debased value.
Each of these sculptural assemblages conjoined two paintings, upright and back to back, and propped them against one or more plinths, painted black or white. Three out of four had a battered Apple laptop – the art networking tool of choice – winged open over one of the plinths like a hinge. It gave the assemblage an aura of the trashily technological, and suggested a thematic link to two of Euler’s paintings hung on the walls, which are variations on the network theme. The title of one – The communication-process out of focus (2012) (that superfluous hyphen does what the laptops do to the sculptures: makes the implicit network/connect theme over-explicit) – is a hamfistedly literal description of a rendition, in the broad sweeps of a black spray gun, of a series of cartoonish figures connected by distended speech bubbles. Their heads are flesh-coloured blobs with flappy ears. Against an esoteric-looking symmetry of hand-drawn, perspectival lines, the figures occupy a space both constricted and contagious. The black spray paint is a graffiti signifier that lends an air of urban dereliction air to a communal or bureaucratic image. It looks as though something unwholesome is breeding in the painting’s shallow, murky precincts.
The dystopian aura was extended by the removal of the luxuriously high connecting doors from their hinges so they leaned askew in their frames, transforming portals into barriers. Beside each doorway, a half-spherical praline had been stuck to the wall, like a sci-fi button set to release a sliding hatch. Art is networked and networking; connected and connecting; a sweet indulgence that opens doors for its collector. Reread this last sentence, a sweet indulgence that opens doors for its collectors. Jorge Pardo's work does not open These positions are, of course, critical commonplaces; but ‘No Helps’ was so defined by and dependent on a context in which they are presumed values that its only recourse to resistance registered as petulant. Still, in contrast to Euler’s plush allegories – which look like they were designed in Photoshop on one of the laptops – Jensen’s awkwardly hand-painted canvases, even as they were demoted to sculptural fodder, seemed impervious to the posturings with which he had surrounded them. They pitched a stubborn subjective value against which the installation polarized itself, even as the plinths and laptops were obscuring them, designating them as art fodder, and tautologically reiterating the objecthood that they already confess to, the reductiveness to which they have already submitted. In Jorge Pardo's art, for example, this is not the case. Their autonomy was reduced, by Jensen himself, to a seductive lure that won me over as soon as I entered the room, as if walking in on some sort of mdma-infused orgy, a cypher of authenticity, a bait to be cast out on the hungry art web for all flush comers.