Robert ‘Bob’ Jenyns was an Australian artist whose practice encompassed sculpture, printmaking, drawing and painting. His work is characterised by an irreverent and humorous take on life, a handcrafted aesthetic, and colourful and childlike depiction of forms in a style that has been described as ‘pop-naive’.
Born in Melbourne in 1944, Jenyns began studying advertising art at the Caulfield Institute of Technology at age 16, but his real interest lay in fine art. He studied with artist/teachers including Ken Scarlett, Kenneth Jack and Fred Cress. ‘I found all of the studio subjects much more interesting than advertising art so spent all of my time in the sculpture or printmaking or drawing or painting studios. They had to kick me out at night basically, and then I’d go to night school … life drawing classes at the old National Gallery schools under John Brack,’ said Jenyns in an interview in 2010 for the Art Gallery of NSW archive.
After graduating Jenyns took a job teaching sculpture and carving at Aspendale Technical School in Melbourne while still aged just 20. Two years later he moved to Daylesford and continued to teach art until 1978, having received his teaching qualifications in 1972 from Hawthorn Teachers College, Melbourne.
Since 1979 Jenyns has been based in Tasmania. He initially lectured in sculpture at the Tasmanian School of Art and later served as head of the sculpture department until 2005. As a teacher, and an artist, Jenyns emphasised the importance of materiality and physical labour over the academic. ‘I used to say to the students: “Don’t think with your head, think with your hands. Start by doing something and it will resolve itself.”’
Jenyns exhibited widely from the 1970s onward, including at the first Biennale of Sydney in 1973 with an interactive work, First lesson, in which members of the public were invited to make use of three easels stocked with drawing paper to draw a nude female lying on a sofa. Then prime minister Gough Whitlam was one notable visitor who participated. Jenyns also showed work in the Mildura Sculpture Triennials in 1973, 1975 and 1978, Australian Perspecta in 1981, the Australian Sculpture Triennials in 1984 and 1990.
His large-scale sculpture in the Art Gallery of NSW collection, The wedding, consists of two painted wood figures dressed as a bride and groom. Resembling giant wedding cake-toppers, the expressions on the faces of the figures are rather grim, providing a darkly humorous counterpart to the usual happy expressions found on such toppers. The blocky construction and square shoulders along with childlike painted faces are typical of Jenyns’ naive style and fascination with the toys of his childhood, most of which he made himself.
In 2008 Jenyns won the prestigious Helen Lempriere National Sculpture Award with his sculpture Pont de l’archeveche, which was modelled after a caravan the artist Albert Tucker designed and built in a hotel room in Paris in the 1950s, which he lowered in pieces through the window, assembled, and lived in on the banks of the Seine for several weeks to save money on accommodation. Tucker’s larrikin spirit was an inspiration for the work, as was Jenyns’ childhood fascination with Meccano building blocks, having received a set when he was ten. The work is constructed from aluminium shaped like giant Meccano pieces, a material Jenyns has used in a number of sculptures.
In 2011 Jenyns said of his art: ‘To me, art is fairly straightforward. I relate to what’s around me and what’s happening and that’s how I respond. I don’t respond to other art movements or other artists’ work. My path has been a narrative and virtually an autobiographical narrative one in my sculpture. I respond to things we do and experience … the hands-on thing is really important to me. I’ve always been a maker.’