Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Illumination

By Rebecca S. Cohen

JULY 27, 1998:  Several weeks ago, I selected Austinite Judy Jensen's exhibition "Emblems & Devices" at Heller Gallery in New York's SoHo district as the first must-see exhibition for my half-day of gallery-hopping in the city. It proved a satisfying decision.

I always enjoy visiting Heller, an established commercial gallery which for over 20 years has exhibited a stellar assortment of artists whose medium is glass. I've followed the gallery from its uptown space to SoHo (word is they're now considering a move to Chelsea) to see world-renowned artists such as Harvey Littleton, Bertil Vallien, and William Morris. The staff is always willing to answer questions from curious visitors and quick to produce a price list when asked, even though they can probably predict when the visitor's jaw will drop after seeing the four- and five-digit figures that predominate. While some New York City art dealers (like some New York City maitre d's) seem to build careers on intimidating customers, the folks at Heller can be downright gracious, whether or not you've actually come into their gallery to buy.

Visitors enter the gallery at 71 Greene Street and step into a front room with lighted cases along each wall, a design strategem that implies (accurately) the vulnerability and value of the striated vessels by Lino Tagliapietra which appear to glow from within. The next room is a large, high-ceilinged space, divided in half for the purposes of the two concurrent exhibitions. Jensen's work is displayed to the right. The absence of natural light toward the back of the gallery permits a "selective" lighting strategy. Unlike the exhibitions of Jensen's art at Austin's Lyons Matrix Gallery, where the work is routinely bathed in an edifying even light, Heller's exhibition dramatically spotlights the more complex areas of each of the 11 shaped wall pieces. The extremities -- often simple areas lacking detail -- are veiled in a mysterious half-light. I found myself squinting.

Still, Jensen, who has shown with the gallery for more than 10 years, did not disappoint. Jensen paints on the reverse side of glass, layering line and form and color to create slick (literally) painted and shaped objects. She employs images of butterflies and bugs, stone angels and sculptural body parts, Persian miniatures and medieval castles, children's building blocks and bagels. Both imagery and technique move the viewer rapidly back and forth in time and place. At its best, the work provides a jarring sensation, which is wonderful. Why is that mysterious picture with the blue, blue sky skewered to the tines of a rake? A number of the organizing elements are tools -- a shovel, a saw, a rake, a sledgehammer -- with an assortment of random images stacked on top making them into bizarre totems. The recently completed Stick Woman wriggles with mixed messages (although a strategically placed shell in its midsection seems too "easy" a choice). A few of the pieces drift unfortunately far into literal territory, as in her juxtaposition of Persian miniature-style figures with a photographic image of a tank and English and Persian phrases.

Finding Jensen's work in New York City rather than Austin, with different lighting and in new company, encouraged me to see it as if for the first time. Context is everything. In Austin, where she shows with painters and sculptors, Jensen is identified (in my mind, at least) with the other artists who used to exhibit at Matrix Glass Gallery -- a glass artist, an excellent craftsperson. I own a shallow bowl with a painted vase that she made years ago. At Heller, Jensen "is one of the few glass artists who could also be called a painter," according to the wall didactics. "Her work is about images," it states. The explanation is redundant. While not the only artist working in a figurative manner, Jensen stands out as an illusionist who uses color and line and form to make shaped two-dimensional paintings rather than sculptures. She provides a wonderful dimension to the gallery's stable of artists, stretching the imagination of anyone with rigid expectations of glass as an art medium. Jensen is one of a number of Austin artists whose work holds its own out there in the Big Art World (joining Peter Saul, Michael Ray Charles, and Melissa Miller), while she receives little more than a wave and a "Hi, Judy!" around here. Sometimes you have to leave home to be able to see the treasures in your own backyard. That's why I try to make regular treks to the Big Apple.

NYC Art-Seeing Tips

The New York art world provides a moveable feast, a veritable smorgasbord of museums and galleries uptown and down, eastside and west. To choose which tasty exhibition to sample, I pour over the latest Gallery Guide, a publication produced nationally which offers regional gallery and museum listings. (Jensen's show is listed in the summer edition.)

The guide is available at galleries and some bookstores or on the Internet at http://www.gallery-guide.com/content/current/in/index.htm. I also read art reviews in the New York Times and the New Yorker and make lists of promising exhibitions, arranging them according to geographic location -- uptown, mid-town, Chelsea, Soho -- always taking careful note of the hours and days of the week they are open to the public. (There is nothing more frustrating than planning a Monday around a visit to the Whitney, only to discover it's closed!) -- R.C.

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