Kevan Jenson is an American magician alchemist using smoke to paint on canvas. He creates surrealistic abstract landscapes that probe our imagination and reveal an imaginary realm that elicits beauty yet whispers and ebbs warnings about our ecology.
Jenson came from a family of artists, writers and musicians, but started UC Berkeley at 17 in math and science, quickly abandoning that field at 18 and headed for a career in art after discovering and idolizing Marcel Duchamp. At Cal, he studied with Harold Paris and became his assistant and mentee. It was his work with Paris that ignited his interest in smoke painting, yet it was an image of Klein with a flame-thrower that pointed out his path. After Paris died, Kevan packed up and left to embrace the NYC art world and had a studio in Chelsea in the early 80s while working as an NYC taxi driver.
Kevan did a little smoke work in NY but when he came back to California in ‘85 to LA, he was immediately inspired by the landscape, ecology and psychology of fire and started feverishly working with smoke on canvas. The fire culture goes way back in California and started with its native peoples who were very in touch with this aspect of the landscape. The hills in California are constantly burning. The word Temescal, which is a neighborhood just a walk away from this exhibit, comes from smoke healing ceremonies and preventative fires. Kevan says, “I’m not specifically tied to any of this, but it lends some weight to my ideas about painting with smoke. There is a ritualistic part of using fire as a tool. I got into smoke upon arrival back in LA and haven’t stopped.”
Jenson has a resume that reads like 5 lifetimes packed into half a life. It’s no wonder that “he creates magic,” as Peter Selz says. Jenson studied and worked with a California master, cut his teeth in the New York art scene in the 80s while working as a cab driver, worked as an artist in LA while simultaneously working as a video engineer and film producer with folks like David Lynch and Hito Steyerl. Jenson even spent nine years working with the psychologist, James Hillman, producing two documentaries on the links between Duchamp and Depth Psychology.
We find an artist embraced by legends of the past and present. Peter Selz, who is one of the most influential curators and art historians of the 20th century, curated a 20-year retrospective of Kevan’s work at Meridian Gallery in SF in 2008. At the same time, we see Jenson working with and supported by Hito Steyerl, who Art Review dubbed as “The Most Influential Artist of 2017” on their Power 100 list.
It’s easy to see the visual magic that Jenson creates in his smoke paintings, but what’s even more important is what is underneath or upside down in the way that Kevan has used his diverse palate of experience to comment on our most fundamental western ideas and Californian identity.
In Kevan’s G.A.P. expo in March, entitled “Carbon Sequestration,” the idea of being held captive by a host of contemporary problems (global warming, an oil economy, the loss of our natural landscapes to deforestation and amplified natural disasters like wildfires) is conflated with notions of how good paintings capture viewers and hold them enthralled. In Jenson’s paintings we are held by the swirling imaginal field of the works AND understand that they are literally made via combustion of carbon. The process fits the content, but in a beautiful way.
Aesthetics provide a path of engagement with the world, especially a world in crisis. Kevan follows on the processes and ethics used by Surrealists to keep Western culture moving forward during the darkest years of the 20th century - free engagement with the imagination. He believes that artists will keep the inner flames of inspiration lit during the dark passages lying ahead as we negotiate our way through another era of upheaval.
If we place Jenson’s work in this context, they begin to open up and omen, visions, harbingers of danger or opportunity, places of contemplation or nightmares. They reveal a mystic vision of our times.