When I first encountered artist Benjamin Jones’ work decades ago, I had some misgivings. His oddball drawings featuring bald, stumpy-armed, terrified-looking humanoid creatures seemed derivative of folk art and pulling inspiration from Bill Traylor, Jean-Michel Basquiat and a litany of Southern folk artists with deeply personal, private mythologies and manias.
But Jones’ style and sensibility have since wriggled their way into my heart as expressions of human vulnerability, isolation and the urge for self-expression. Jones’ work gets under your skin, burrowing into your psyche with its strange gumbo of horror, cuteness and empathy. With their bottom-heavy bowling pin bodies keeping them immobile and their scrawny, flailing insect arms and legs offering little defense, Jones’ slight, pencil-on-paper drawings express inner paralysis and fear. His figures open their tiny, toothy mouths to emit a miniature existential wail. In “Porcupine Boy” (2002) a vulnerable, slight, child-like figure sports pointy quills all over his body, keeping the world at a painful distance.
Jones’ current retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia “Benjamin Jones Speaking,” curated by his longtime former gallerist Barbara Archer, is at times rambling and chaotic. But it is also genuine and incisive and best of all, makes you feel this artist’s rage, passion and heartbreak. It shows a man who has spent the past 40 years working with avidity and focus to both address the anxieties roiling within and also to spotlight the injustices, cant and hypocrisies of the larger world.
Divided into seven sections into topics such as loving (movie stars from Barbara Stanwyck to Meryl Streep are some of his favorite love objects), religion, suffering and inspiration, the exhibition features found object sculptures using Coca-Cola cans, gourds or marbles requisitioned to create a bowl. There is a wall devoted to Jones’ mail art and vitrines that house his notebooks. Jones is a fan of kitsch and over time he appears to have become better at reining it in and not grabbing every material at hand.
In the Religion portion of the show Jones makes a connection between religious and other states of ecstasy by decorating a paper church fan with cut-out magazine images of hunky, shirtless men in various states of beefcake ecstasy. In that early work, “Peace in the Valley” (1992), Jones’ cleverness and snark come barreling through.
There is urgent, accusatory work going on in the show too. In the mortality-themed section, “Early War Dead” (2007) lists in neat arrangements of text, the names of some of the soldiers who died during the Iraq War. As Jones has continued in his art-making it has become more engaged with politics and also tighter, more refined, more pointed in its effects.
MORE THINGS TO DO: Take a walk among the birds at Fernbank Forest
Jones’ art isn’t just an exorcism of the inner demons of self-doubt, childhood-hurts, family-drama and existential angst that torment so many of us. His artworks are also appeals of rage-against-the-machine to our better selves and reminders of greater injustices in works like “War Orphan” (2003) of a charred and traumatized child. “Benjamin Jones Speaking” conveys the power and need for art when so many of us feel like one of Jones’ immobilized, powerless creatures. What are artists, after all, but the members of society who keep us honest, who force us to meditate on the world around us rather than scroll through to the next distraction?
Now in his mid-60s and working as a grocery clerk on Tybee Island (“it’s like appearing on Broadway every night” he quips in a revealing accompanying video), Jones is every inch the iconoclastic Southern eccentric marching to his own drummer, defining his own happiness. If pain is a constant, then creation has been Jones’ release.
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