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A Happy Meal of Art References

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Just around the corner from Ben Jones’s installation of animated paintings at The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth hangs Frank Stella’s Silverstone (1983). In contrast to Jones’s busy, bright and alive paintings, Stella’s formalist struggle with painting appears quaint. Movement and gesture in formalist painting, if present, is frozen. The index of time and space is locked into the image, inviting contemplation of the artist’s movements. But painting with light, as Jones does, activates time and space, literally. Viewers may still fall into a quiet, contemplative zone but it’s a mesmerizing, fantastical experience that feels very different from gazing at static images.

Jones’s video paintings are installed in two rooms that flank the central gallery space, which contains the other components of the exhibition: three ladders, a painting and a dog bench. In MS Video Painting I and MS Video Painting 2, the images at first appear to be complex animations of geometric shapes and morphing figures. (“MS” stands for “Magical Saints,” the elfish characters that appear in Jones’s work). Yet after a few moments of watching, it becomes apparent that the projected images are moving over a series of painted canvases rather than a blank white screen. This fusion between painted canvas and projected image fascinates the eye, but with too long of a look, the paintings suck the viewer in to a dizzy, overwhelming world. Bridget Riley’s pulsing stripes may induce a seasick sensation, but combined with Day-Glo colors and moving images, this effect is squared.

Jones blends together a Happy Meal of art historical references, including Op and Pop art. The one static painting in Jones’ exhibition, a Day-Glo scene painted over in rich velvety black, offers a particularly serendipitous reference to Andy Warhol (the exhibition Andy Warhol: The Last Decade is also visiting The Modern right now). Some of Warhol’s iconic paintings are black images, silkscreened and painted over Day-Glo colors. The use of Day-Glo remains an attention grabbing, look-at-me tactic. Yet Jones replaces Warhol’s familiar pop images with a hand-painted scene from a digital world. Jones builds a complex of three canvases to create a dizzying, claustrophobic space inhabited by a creepy green woman with pointed fingers. The shock factor may be different but it contrasts with the art’s playful colors and this juxtaposition is reminiscent of Warhol’s dire images of car crashes, revolvers and self-portraits.

The central gallery space feels like actually stepping into one of the space of one of the animated paintings in the adjacent galleries. Jones, who is one-third of the artist collective Paper Rad and an animator for The Simpsons, beams the viewer into a digital world. Two walls are painted in broad diagonal gray-and-white stripes. These series of stripes, patterns and shapes recur throughout the exhibition, causing viewers to recognize and reassess their presence in varied contexts. For example, a dog image, painted with the now familiar neon stripes, is repeated in mirror image on the painted backdrop for MS Video Painting 2. Jones takes the elongated shape of the digital dog and transforms it into an actual bench which sits in the middle room. Though it appeared totally functional, the bench was off-limits for sitting, which placed it within the context of sculpture.

Three Day-Glo ladders mounted on the walls also allude to imaginary space. Abstracted and non-functional, these ladders exist for the mind. The ladders’ false three-dimensionality is symbolic of the viewer’s eye and mind crossing into an animated space that is physically impenetrable. Jones’ art holds the tension of this embodied/disembodied experience. Watching The Simpsons in your living room, this mental leap may go unexamined, but standing in Jones’s installation at The Modern, the journey itself becomes an object of fascination. With his many shapes, patterns and mysterious characters, Jones thwarts an easy narrative reading. By resisting narrative and working within the context of a museum, Jones points the viewer instead to the relationship between digital media and traditional painting. Next to the mischievious fun of Jones’s animated paintings, Stella’s painted, swirling, cutout wood surfaces look contrived and dated, records of the painter’s toil, both mental and physical. Meanwhile, Jones’s animated light paintings actually dissolve the constraints of the canvas that so obsessed modernist painters like Stella, giving the work a deceivingly light easy appearance, even if it is anything but. Perhaps the most fundamental difference is that the labor itself has shifted, in large part, from the physical to computer-based technology.

Wendy Atwell received her M.A. in Art History and Criticism from The University of Texas at San Antonio.