ON VIEWHigh Noon
September 24 – November 8, 2020
The intelligence of Mary Jones’s paintings—and they are fiercely intelligent—does not come from clever readings of conventions around painting, art history, language, or science, although those considerations do figure into her practice. Instead, Jones’s paintings are painstaking explorations of the disjunction between the world as it comes to us through our senses—the information we consume during our waking hours—and the world of our interiority—memories, imaginings, and reflections. Her work lives on a tenuous frontier negotiated as part of the ongoing truce between these two warring aspects of our awareness. Animated by dissensus, it is an obscure space, and not easy to occupy. Jones’s canvases and works on paper are the residue of that struggle.
A metaphor for that obscurity, the color black runs through Jones’s work like a bass line, a pulse that sets everything in motion. We see it in what has become a theme in her work: X-ray scans taken of her friends, relatives, and even herself. X-rays present images that externalize the insides of our bodies in a potent reversal of our normal attitudes. 2020 (2020) places an X-ray of a set of teeth in the upper third of its vertical composition. The black stillness of the X-ray contrasts with thick swaths of black oil paint, applied with rollers, that sweep across the lower half. The mouth is one of the essential gateways between inside and outside—it keeps us alive as we breathe, eat, and speak. The painting’s title commemorates this annus horribilis of pandemic, a time when coming in contact with other people’s breath threatens lives. Combining suggestions of death, life, and the conflict between inner and outer consciousness in a way that can only be described as tantric, 2020 brings to mind Jasper Johns’s works that deal with the same motif.
The iconography of tantrism is explicit in the pairing of The Slayer and The Assignment (both 2020), two diminutive canvases that hang side by side in the show. Both combine images of Hindu deities with silver leaf and paint. Using the Metropolitan Museum of Art catalog as her image reference, Jones introduces a level of ironic distance, as the provenance of both artworks refers to the colonialist practices that built much of the Met’s collection. The deity in The Slayer is Chamunda, a demon-slaying goddess of hideous aspect. Her body a rotting corpse with bulging eyes, she is an extreme version of the fearsome Kali. Kali worship is to this day an essential component of Shaiva Tantrism. The figure in The Assignment is a type of devata, or goddess, known as a celestial dancer. Her erotic charge is obvious, from her globular breasts to the exaggerated pose that emphasizes her waist, buttocks, and thighs. The contrast between the wrathful deity and the sky nymph, sex and death, are fixtures of both Hindu and Buddhist tantrism.
To be clear, Jones’s fascination with the play of opposites in tantrism serves as subject matter, not a belief system. It is an outgrowth of her painting practice, and not the other way around. We see this in her formal decision-making. The wide dynamic range of values in The Slayer and The Assignment, from the blacks that cement the lower portions of the figures to the reflective surfaces of the silver leaf that frame their heads, correlates with the extremities of human experience that are a chief concern of tantrism. Jones also contrasts the angular cubism of The Slayer with the lyrical and curling cloud motifs that rise above the head of the devata in The Assignment. Jones’s agonistic process pits opposites of taste and sensation against each other to arrive at a resolution greater than the sum of its parts. In this respect she belongs to a lineage in painting that goes at least as far back as “Cézanne’s Doubt” (as famously described by Maurice Merleau-Ponty) and comes down to us by way of the New York School’s radical rejection of founding principles.
A process that relies on constant questioning necessarily courts failure. That Jones manages to deliver with consistency is a tribute to her tenacity, but her very best works resolve conceptual and material disjunctions with confounding inevitability. Oh So Many (2020) is a stunning piece whose incongruous surface—wallpaper, silver leaf, oil paint, and spray paint—fuses into a seamless whole with a tertiary palette that could belong to a fragment of a Warhol or a Pompeiian wall painting. It is a surprising and hypnotic work that, if only briefly, can shut down internal dialogue long enough to make us forget we are looking at a painting. There are many ways that art can make us feel more alive, but making the familiar novel is first among equals.