The Underground Melancholic

Any painterly Eros in Sergej Jensen's paintings is necrophiliac by nature. The past served up as an outstretched hand that crumbles as you reach out to grab it.

Sergej Jensen, untitled, 2016, Silk screen on canvas, 65.5 x 85.4 cm Courtesy the artist and Avskarl, Copenhagen/Galerie Neu, Berlin Photo: Anders Sune Berg.
Sergej Jensen, untitled, 2016. Silk screen on canvas, 65.5 x 85.4 cm. Courtesy the artist and Avlskarl, Copenhagen/Galerie Neu, Berlin. Photo: Anders Sune Berg.

Sergej Jensen’s exhibition is in many ways entirely off. Whereas exhibitions in x-rummet at SMK (The National Gallery of Denmark) typically constitute overt, installatory artistic statements, Sergej Jensen’s is at first glance more reminiscent of a classic gallery exhibition. The twenty-odd paintings hang side by side in rhythmic sequence; the hang appears to be governed by tasteful variations of format, colour and subject matter. Other than that, no overall principle can be discerned: these are paintings hung along a wall rather than paintings that engage and activate the space.

Taken as a whole, the choice of subject matter is rather puzzling. Art history is rummaged through and plundered in a somewhat idiosyncratic manner. Here we find direct paraphrases of Courbet, Degas and Manet, and a range of Renaissance artists get sampled. A remake of Edouard Manet’s The Execution of Emperor Maximilian hangs side by side with a painting of an anti-Islamic demonstration in Kongens Nytorv in Copenhagen. Both paintings share the same format and depict “political subject matter”, but other than this the juxtaposition seems flimsily arbitrary.

From these aloof art historical meditations, distant and darkened looks are directed at contemporary Copenhagen: A lavatory building in the Kongens Have park, a hotel room equipped with a Bang & Olufsen TV, a picture of Rigshospitalet and the aforementioned anti-Islamic demonstration all constitute a kind of “Copenhagen scenes”. These motifs are based on photographic references, painted by means of projector, a technique that gives the paintings a somewhat “respirator-like” feel.

One looks for internal connections between the art history paraphrases and the Copenhagen scenes; indeed one looks for any red thread running through it all, for a specific theme or overarching formal concern, but every time one glimpses a hint of a connection, it seems as if a caveat is instantly added. However, a distinctive sensibility certainly pervades the works.

Sergej Jensen, untitled,  2014. Acrylics on canvas, 276.9 x 233.7 cm. Courtesy the artist and Regen Projects, Los Angeles.
Sergej Jensen, untitled, 2014. Acrylics on canvas, 276.9 x 233.7 cm. Courtesy the artist and Regen Projects, Los Angeles.

Sergej Jensen expresses an idiosyncratic melancholy sensibility that has to do with time and art history. Here, motifs taken from art history are not depicted as clichés; there is no ironic leering, no infantile silliness, no attempt at pimping the images or imbuing them with new relevance – traits otherwise typically seen in sampling, paraphrasing painting. Rather, these paintings look as if they have been dragged up from some underground cellar where dust, moisture and plaster has slowly eaten away the human hand and spirit that once gave them life. If there is any painterly Eros in these works, it is necrophiliac by nature.

You discover that your woodwork is infested by woodworm when dust falls out of it. Sergej Jensen’s brushwork has a wormy quality clearly reminiscent of the Dutch painter Hercules Seghers (1589–1638). The images appear like worm-eaten tracings of art historical trappings that were once surrounded by living, vibrant cultural thinkers, but which now appear dusty, neglected, abandoned in the underground storage facility of history. But Degas, Courbet, Matisse and Manet are of course museum blockbusters and seem to appear vibrant and full of life to their intended audience. This means that we cannot diagnose history on the basis of Sergej Jensen’s works, for they say nothing about our current collective relationship with the history of art. Rather, they express a distant melancholy sensibility typical of Sergej Jensen’s generation of German artists, addressing themes such as rewritings of modernism, utopian nostalgia and a post-historical sense of emptiness. However, this generational experience of melancholia has in itself become an anachronism. Thus, encountering Sergej Jensen’s works feels like a kind of double melancholia.

To new generations, the loss of utopias and a living (art) historical narrative does not even feel like a loss anymore. Older generations regard this as a lack of historical awareness, but it might also be perceived as a sign that the post-traumatic grieving process after the death of History has been successfully completed. In his brief text “Mourning and Melancholia” Freud addresses melancholia as a pathological state. Mourning is important, but melancholia is a problem: “If the love for the object – a love which cannot be given up though the object itself is given up – takes refuge in narcissistic identification, then the hate comes into operation on this substitutive object, abusing it, debasing it, making it suffer and deriving sadistic satisfaction from its suffering.”

Outside the exhibition – yet still reproduced in the catalogue that accompanies it – is a painting called Hate Matisse (2013). The painting looks as if a bag has been pulled down over the head of Matisse, who now appears to be a prisoner subjected to humiliating acts. Here we find the underground melancholiac as a hostage taker, motivated by an unhappy love of lost art history as described by Freud. It gives one the urge to release the motifs, setting them free in more nourishing, life-giving surroundings.

The new Post-Internet era has liberated us from the cultural melancholia typical of earlier generations. Now, our attention is directed to what is to come: technological acceleration, planetary change, post-humanity, artificial intelligence and virtual economies to mention just a few examples. We no longer live with an absence of expectations of the future. Quite the contrary. Our horizon of expectations has become monstrous, transcendental and catastrophic. A new, jumbled-up state of affairs that simultaneously prompts euphoria and anxiety, new hope and boundless tragedy. Nevertheless, this is a much more vibrant condition, one that inspires exploration and speculative ideas. Pitted against this we find the old-world melancholic, doomed to live out a pseudo-existence in the shadow of the shadow of lost History. Sergej Jensen presents us with the gloomy underground melancholic in his dustiest, most convoluted form. The past served up as an outstretched hand that crumbles as you reach out to grab it.

Sergej Jensen, untitled, 2015. Acrylics on canvas,  190 x 230 cm. Courtesy the artist and dépendance, Bruxelles. Photo: Sven Laurent.
Sergej Jensen, untitled, 2015. Acrylics on canvas,190 x 230 cm. Courtesy the artist and dépendance, Bruxelles. Photo: Sven Laurent.