2.3 / Review

From Taos: Stone Lithography

By Randall Miller October 8, 2010

To name something is to take possession of it. Such is the objective of scientific taxonomy: to make order of the natural world by corralling a given plant or animal into a predictable table of categorical data. At the Harwood Museum of Art, in a show simply titled Stone Lithography, printmaker Gendron Jensen’s hyper-realist lithographs of animal skulls and bones offer a reminder of nature’s tangled nature. Despite the remarkable clarity of his images, Jensen’s work confounds the comfortable recognition of worldly forms promised by natural history.

Jensen’s images are composed against a clean white surface. There is no contextual information—not even the presence of shadows—to suggest what kind of space these bone formations inhabit. Instead, the viewer is left to contemplate these images with no ordering signs; the white background is almost like a fog from which the bones emerge, as exemplified by Anpetu (2002). One of Jensen’s most confrontational images, this ancient buffalo skull is illustrated head-on, and its subtle dimensionality creates a deep space within the picture plane. Far from being empty, the white space surrounding the skull serves as a medium, and the buffalo, despite its careful rendering, becomes not an object, but an appearance.

Jensen’s deceptively straightforward lithography has a certain mystifying quality to it—that much is easily said. But the reason why the clear-cut images take on such an uncanny presence, however, is not as easy to pinpoint. Perhaps it’s the peculiarity of seeing animal bones rather than the animals themselves—after all, a bear does look very different from its skull. But there’s also something challenging and bewildering in the exceptional draftsmanship of the prints themselves. The surfaces of the bones are rendered with so much attention to texture that they almost become tangible objects. Though these finer details provide a great deal of visual clarity, they also lend an abstract quality to the work, particularly in the prints featuring bone fragments instead of skulls. The four pieces in Jensen’s Season’s Suite (1999) series depict unspecified leg bone fragments from coyotes; the pairing together and flipping of twin structures creates a formal harmony that suggests seeing two sides of the same thing. Strangely enough, this revelation makes the fragments no more familiar.

Horned Islander, 2008; stone lithography. Courtesy of the Harwood Museum of Art, Taos, NM.

The Elder, 1998; stone lithography. Courtesy of the Harwood Museum of Art, Taos, NM.

An untitled piece from 2006 functions as another exercise in creating distance through close observation. These curious forms—cow elk and grey wolf skulls, we are told—are astoundingly accurate, and every nuance of the boney structures is rendered in careful detail. But the simplistic presentation of information obfuscates whatever conclusions may be reached by the specificity of their appearance; the print could just as easily be a surrealist image of the world split open, revealing its inner mysteries. The abstract quality of this work is even more prevalent in compositions such as Singer of Songs (1989). The bilateral symmetry of the lithograph of coyote vertebrae is reminiscent of a Rorschach test. Figural associations begin to occur: the image could be skeletal, but it could be something else, too.

Accompanying the lithographs are some of the skeletal artifacts that inspired Jensen’s work. On loan from the University of New Mexico’s natural history archives, the bones are marked and tagged with categorical information: indexical labeling, numerical codes, a circle and cross sign indicating that the bones belong to a female of the species. Outside of the scientific context from which they were borrowed, the extraneous symbols marking these bones dissolve into inscrutable code. The inclusion of these artifacts perhaps points viewers back to the common historical origins of art and science in alchemy, where opposing concepts such as mystification and enlightenment could exist in the same space.

Also an archive of the artist’s process, the exhibition provides some insight into Jensen’s practice as a printmaker. In a procession of photographs, viewers are presented with a step-by-step documentation of how the artist creates one of his lithographs: we see a still life of a skull set up next to a blank litho stone and an array of drawing tools; from one picture to the next, the skull is translated onto the stone by Jensen’s remarkably deft hand. Like his prints, there is something naked in the stark simplicity of Jensen’s working method. Without romanticizing the artist as some sort of mystical conjurer, the coupling of ancient objects with such an old method of production speaks to something at once alien and elemental, timeless and immediate. The collection of pieces in Stone Lithography is jarring both for its frank presentation and for its transformative engagement.



Stone Lithography is on view at the Harwood Museum of Art, in Taos, New Mexico, through January 23, 2011.

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