New York Studio School, June 5 – September 12, 2008
In a recent review of “How Soon Is Now?”—the 28th annual exhibition for the Bronx Museum’s Artist in the Marketplace (AIM) program for emerging artists —Roberta Smith laments the failure of the current crop of artists to embrace skill-building courses like painting and drawing, replacing the direct, tactile connection to materials with theory and artspeak. An artist develops a “density of expression,” she suggests, not through reading aesthetic theory, but by looking at visual art, and, most importantly, in the process of making traditional objects like paintings. Jilaine Jones’s quietly extraordinary exhibition of sculpture at the New York Studio School proves Smith’s point that making can indeed create deeper, more complex layers of meaning, and helps reposition the permanent object as central to the artistic endeavor.
Displayed in the charmingly shabby gallery at the Studio School, where the noble if perhaps wistful motto is “Ambition for the work, not ambition for the career,” Jones’s sculptures are composed of steel, concrete, rockboard and hydrocal. She began this series in 2003-04 with life studies from a model. Directing the model to move through scaffolding she had erected in the studio, Jones observed the body’s motions, weight shifts, and position. In the studies, using sticks and glue, Jones tried to capture the body’s experience from within—as opposed to simply incorporating a mimetic likeness—in a fragile, three-dimensional template for the full-scale sculpture.
Jones’s work is at once magisterially elegant and endearingly clumsy. In “Portrait of a Solitary Walk,” the graceful steel strips, rendered in flat black, support a big, awkward concrete slope with an upward tilt at the bottom, evoking a shoe, which appears to be gripping the steel and crumbling away from it at the same time. Mirroring the concrete is a smaller, similarly shaped form welded from linear steel pieces and nestled in the top corner of the structure, as if the two are having a quiet conversation. Thus, Jones knowingly betrays the conceit of solitariness planted in the title of the piece. Her confident use of simple visual signals and the physical characteristics of her minimal, crudely industrial materials enables her to impart subtle emotional situations and complex narratives. The angles of her “Wonder World,” which seem to soar to a monumental apex, for example, are soberly restrained by the grave heaviness of the concrete that helps support them.
Jones’s idiosyncratically contrasting geometric shapes roughly formed from cement and hydrocal, a moldable claylike substance, with straight and bent steel strips of varying thicknesses, seem unmistakably akin to Amy Sillman’s paintings, especially those in Third Person Singular, her 2008 show at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, dc (currently on view at the Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs). As it happens, Sillman too began her new series of paintings by sketching from live models. In an interview with curator Anne Ellegood, Sillman concedes that working from direct observation may seem old-fashioned, but explains that she wanted to move beyond the cartoon-like figures in her previous work. Those early figures were drawn from Sillman’s imagination. Subsequently working with models, all of whom were Sillman’s couple friends, provided a dynamic, emotionally-charged new starting point. After digesting the visual form, she “drained the boring content out” by redrawing the images from memory, sometimes, six or seven times. With each successive iteration, the image became more visually abstract, and the final paintings are both spare and lush—no small accomplishment.
As a consequence of this repetitive, labor-intensive process, Sillman believes her formal vocabulary grew. In both Jones’s and Sillman’s work, the strategy of starting with direct observation followed by a self-consciously gradual and evolutionary art-making process unquestionably enriched the ultimate sculptures and paintings, respectively. Even though neither artist is interested in producing mimetic artwork per se, hours of perceptual study—of keenly observing what was in front of them—engendered a visual, tactile focus that is evident in both artists’ aesthetic decision-making and, in Jones’s case, the intense materiality of the work.
Jones’s sculptures at first glance look like a kind of tribute to the early and mid-century Modernist abstraction of sculptors like Anthony Caro, David Smith, and Tom Scott, for whom Jones worked as a studio assistant in the eighties. But if they are that, they also reflect a more probative and substantive revival of subordinated artistic values. Jones’s work embodies a return to hand-making processes and craftsmanship, and re-establishes a premium on aesthetics over art theory and rhetoric. The implicit message in her emphasis may be that the cul-de-sac of transitory site-specific installation and collaboration in which we find ourselves is giving way to a renewed vision of individual authorship, density of expression, and the inexorable presence of discrete objects.