Historical Journal


Ronald Jones: FACE VALUE

August 2, 1989
Dan Cameron

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One of the more immediate reasons why Ronald Jones has become increasingly visible in the late ’80s is that his work is always kidding when he should be serious, and serious when he should be kidding around. Normally, qualities like these would not appeal to the art world at the height, say, of a popular movement in which certain artists had successfully courted the imaginations of a grateful public. However, Jones has chosen not to address the stylistic base of art-making so much as the way in which this range of styles is influenced by the sociopolitical dictates of its time. In short, Jones’s lightly perverse investigation has come into play at a moment when the art world is feeling its own values challenged from within, and his continuous pointing to certain gaps of meaning serve, if not as a mobile conscience, at least a reminder of art’s earlier, more ideologically challenging
The key historical point of departure for Jones’ work is the evolution of abstract art during the past seventy-five years, and more generally, the ‘purity’ with which all stylistic movements come to be identified by the generations hat immediately follow. A fairly easy illustration would be the Russian Suprematists, who were almost certainly influenced more by the general spirit of social change than by any specified need to promote an evolutionary framework for painting. A less clear case in point is that of certain American Minimalists, in whose work one an sometimes pick out an underlying indictment of American policy in Vietnam and on the Civil Rights issue.
For Jones, it is the discrepancy between that abstraction is supposed to mean with what it really means that creates the major problem in its re-contextualization for the current epoch. To borrow from the headlines, so to speak, the present generation of American geometrists have declared a specific terrain for themselves-that of the deconstruction of the painting as a serialized object of social decorum -and are presenting themselves from an ambivalent position as far as their extension of that problem into other social areas is concerned. However, the possibility of ‘critical painting’ is an issue that Jones prefers to take on as directly as possible, in that he turns to issues of social sensitivity for the imagery itself, and leaves the viewer hanging at a precipice as to what that material could mean. His presentations of such information as the floor plans of concentration camps or the seating arrangement of a peace conference are made without comment about any ideological premise, and none is called for.
But that isn’t to say that Jones’ method of playing with loaded signifiers is all done for effect. If we consider, for the sake of comparison, the respective work of Peter Halley and Tim Rollins & K.O.S., we see that Halley, at one extreme, creates pictures of the world that is hidden from the subject, and Rollins and K.O.S. the world that is perceived by the subject. In Halley the relation to a political reality is that of tearing away the veil which conceals the meaning, whereas in Rollins it is the superimposition of one meaning over another that creates the impact. In Jones’ work, these two extremes are more or less brought together as matter of course (with fewer sexual metaphors). First, these are not pictures of the world, except in the most ideogrammatic way. Of course the reason the world has saved this information is for someone like Jones to come along and plunder, but the meaning of the source material is bound up in its having become an artwork at all. Secondly, in his work the subtext is never any further away than the ubiquitous wall label, which means that the viewer doesn’t need to have mirrored in either sociology or literature to get the point. He or she simply needs to know enough to have realized that modernism has failed.
As if to underline the grey area where meaning and value overlap, Jones’ pieces are always beautifully executed, and apparently geared for only the most discriminating collectors- a point of irony that few artists today seem able to resist. However, with his current series based on stylized views of HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus), Jones has taken his furthest steps so far toward really making a true composite between one category of image and another, the second being that perfect look of a classic modernist sculpture on its pedestal in an important museum. This group moves closer to the issues of outright forgery than anything he has done so far, although what Jones has appropriated is the language of presentation with which these artists (Arp and Brancusi, to be specific) were engaged. However, the most compelling aspect of this co-existence of languages is the relative nature of desire being played out in his double subject: Brancusi says “Touch:’ AIDS says “Don’t Touch.”
The finish of these sculptures, and their perfectly serene display atop these columnar or squared-off pedestals, speak to one of the more troubling aspects of the art world in a moment of social evolution when artistic meanings seem stranded off the far coast of exoticism. Most people in the art world at this moment are somewhat aware of the activities of such AIDS-based groups as ACT-UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), who have helped draw attention to (among other things) the fact that the social status of the PWA as a “guilty victim” can easily be seen as informing the apparatus by which federal support for AIDS programs and drug approvals are brought into being. Where this information has ramifications in the world of culture is in the awareness that some of our friends may have died because AIDS treatment is still woefully short of the mark in this country, where, if you have it, the government would much rather find you than treat you.
The very real myth of the “social pariah” in AIDS consciousness is in fact the hidden subject in these five sculptures, and Jones has developed his theme with both precision and compassion, to the extent that one sees the works themselves, or more precisely their sources, as exemplifying a closing off of modernist aesthetics to social reality throughout the present century. The distrust with which ideas from the street are met at the door of the museum points to the much larger question of who controls the meanings of high visual culture in our age, and to what ends? Although it would be a mistake to perceive these works as ideological responses to a social crisis, it would not be stretching the point to suggest that more complex meanings are the harbingers of a new visual language, appropriately tailored for the end of the century, in which signification is not usurped for its limits of meaning, but rather for the fact its meanings cannot be contained.
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