Visual Arts

Finding Beauty and Dignity in the Undignified World of Ship-Breaking

Life at sea has always been adventurous and lucrative, from the early wooden rafts of ancient Assyrians to the Phoenician traders of 1200 BC to the fully rigged galleons of the 14th century. Modern day oil tankers and container ships serve as the subject matter for Jeff Jennings's New Work exhibit at d. m. allison gallery, though the artist has captured these behemoths in their last moments of glory.

These magnificent ships, which serve for 25-30 years delivering international cargo, eventually become uninsurable and are sold for salvage. Most ships are recycled in Bangladesh, India and China, where the safety rules are less stringent and the labor more affordable.

Having become interested in the subject matter, and finding that the port authorities in the United States prohibit photography, Jennings traveled to Bangladesh to photograph the decommissioned ships.

In three of his works Jennings has drawn in graphite longitudinal and latitudinal lines, then scribed the circle of a compass, and overlain these cartographic reference points with accurate representations of these ships, using acrylic on paper and wood. The Muhammad Shah, with the tip of its stern removed, reflects hauntingly in the water alongside a ghostly sketch of a now-defunct ship. The cross-section of Joan of Arc reveals her many interior levels; the sole remaining life raft seems futile in view of the ship's fate. Marco Polo, with segments of the boat literally ripped away, is memorialized with Jennings's evocative words: labor, blood, life, death ....

Similar in style but formed into 40-inch rounds are the Sabina #2, Louisa #2 and Thomas Wheeler #3; the latter is dissected with half its body resting lifeless on the water's edge. In defiance of the ship-breakers' assault, the Sabina #2 manages to stand majestic, tall and proud.

The skies are always painted differently in each of Jennings's pieces, and change their tone depending on the light. The over-sized Vittoria portrays the sky as a yellow cyclonic wave, a foreshadowing of the ultimate demise for this already cavernous and partially dismantled vessel.

The monochromatic The Elements #2, with its splotchy atmosphere of graphite and gouache, stands defenseless in her solitude. For this last moment, the ship is still intact and whole, but the fading propeller tells the story of the coming storm.

Though produced during an earlier period, 2009's Chittagong #10 and Chittagong #6 - whimsical imaginary monotypes rendered with an abstract crosshatch pattern - are appealing in their simplicity.

Prior to this series Jennings worked primarily in sculpture, and he does offer two sculptural pieces in this exhibit. His Segmented Arc, with its bend of seven chambers, reintroduces his crosshatch pattern in its foot-like base. It pairs well with the rondels, echoing their curves with elegance and grace. On display in the garden is Karnaphuli Freighter, an upturned boat made of wood, acrylic, lead and concrete; the payoff is in walking around to view its Prismacolored interior.

New Work continues through April 25, at d. m. allison gallery, 2709 Colquitt, open Wednesday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., 832-607-4378,

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Susie Tommaney is a contributing writer who enjoys covering the lively arts and culture scene in Houston and surrounding areas, connecting creative makers with the Houston Press readers to make every week a great one.
Contact: Susie Tommaney