But Jones is just as inspired by the creaky earnestness of the self-taught: folk art, sign painters and the homespun craftiness you can find in the kind of Cashiers, North Carolina, gift shops Jones grew up with.
He calls “Destruction Derby Dreamland” a “love letter to America,” as a thing possibly waning as democratic standards like freedom and maybe even democracy itself begin to wither. It’s love with a sidecar of despair. “It’s the romantic collapse of America,” Jones says.
Many of Jones’ paintings in “Destruction Derby Dreamland” have the pastel color scheme of Ladurée macaron boxes, swags of garland and apple-cheeked cherubs, and betray the influence of French modernist Édouard Manet, one of Jones’ other faves. Only in Jones’ crazy quilt imagination, that porky cherub seems to be reining his grace down upon Evander Holyfield and Mike Tyson who are posed with fists ready to punch in “I Saw an Angel,” one of the whiplash-inducing juxtapositions of the classical and the profanely pop that Jones specializes in.
The 30-year-old artist lives with his artist wife, Katie Beall, in Austell but grew up in Cashiers where his mother’s family lived for generations. He’s been drawing “since I can remember” he says and was encouraged by a family of musicians and art teachers and his aunt Mary Jones, an accomplished New York painter whose work has been reviewed in The New York Times and Art in America magazine. His aunt would visit Cashiers over the summer and paint watercolors with him. “That was formative for me as an artist,” Jones says.
Jones moved to Atlanta in 2011 to attend the Savannah College of Art and Design (where he met Beall) and initially had a hard time shaking his moneymaker — paintings of songbirds that sold briskly from galleries in Cashiers and Atlanta.
“They sold like hotcakes,” he laughs.
“I do come from blue-collar, Southern people — and proud of it. And so for a long time, it’s like, ‘Well, you got to do something that sells.’ Otherwise, you know, what’s the point?”
An influential SCAD professor Michael Brown jolted him out of that avian reverie.
“Why are you painting birds?” Brown asked him.
Jones’ paintings aren’t too removed from his coming of age in the South.
“I grew up that way. You know, riding dirt bikes, hunting, fishing, shooting guns, the whole nine.”
His “Blue Dog Democrat” grandparents had a portrait of JFK hanging in their living room. They listened to gospel music and loved Elvis, references that often pop up in Jones’ work like “Heaven or Hellfire” of America’s 35th president flanked with gardenia blossoms and the kind of licking crimson flames that ornament ’50s hot rods.
“I just kind of realized that’s who I was, what I knew and what I wanted to portray,” he says of how that formative iconography eventually seeped into his paintings.
“There’s a lot of people these days who look down on Southern culture and look down on Southern people,” says Jones. He sees his work as an outsize, performative homage to those blue-collar folk.
“For me, it’s like a celebration — the exaggeration of it to me is like performance: blowing it up so that people look at it.”
Like many other contemporary artists, Jones has been experimenting with the visual potential of artificial intelligence. In August, Jones will explore more of that burgeoning interest in AI and the Midjourney Bot in his exhibition “I Love You Appalachia” at Whiteside Art Gallery in Cashiers.
Jones has been feeding text prompts like “Appalachian man holding up a fish praising God” into the bot to see what visuals are spit out. The results are ludicrous, maudlin, even poignant.
“So it’s like a false memory of home,” he says of these AI-generated Southern portraits.
Like all of his work, “I Love You Appalachia” is founded on the contradiction between truth and fiction, comedy and pathos, and our complex cultural associations when it comes to the South, America, masculinity and history.
“It’s pretty much toeing the line between absurd and heartfelt,” he says of these portraits of weathered, salt-of-the-earth men and women.
“Evan Jones: Destruction Derby Dreamland”
Through July 8. 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays. Free. Thomas Deans Fine Art. 690 Miami Circle NE, Atlanta. 404-814-1811, thomasdeansfineart.com.