Pinning down the work of Ben Jones can be a hard task. Since first coming to public attention as part of the experimental arts collective Paper Rad, Jones’ work across the fields of video art, installation, painting, animation and comic books has made him one of America’s most consistently interesting and nebulous artistic practitioners, with his firm grasp of design and sense of humour being the only constants in his ever changing and mutating oeuvre.
Men’s Group: The Video provides the closest thing we have to an overview of Jones’s complete body of work, presented in a spiral bound folder and throwing together comics, instagrams and paintings, designs and writing, in order to commemorate his last solo show at MOCA. It’s mixed-bag status is therefore assured and it should come as no surprise then to find that the quality of the content varies wildly. The opening collection of essays, poetry and interviews by such luminaries as Byron Coley, Dan Nadel and Gary Panter on the subject of ‘manliness’ went some way toward alienating its audience, coming across as smug and in-jokey. However the book’s clean sense of space and design ensures that it’s always handsome to look at and the essays are easily skipped should the reader wish to progress to the more interesting sections.
The first up is a collection of photos of Jones’ video paintings. Consisting of combinations of red, blue and green light being shone onto a painted surface, they have a garishly psychedelic effect; eye-bleeding combinations of pinks and neon greens fractalising and bursting on the painting’s surface. But unsurprisingly for such an accomplished draughtsman it’s Jones’ sketches and comic books that really grab the attention. Whimsical, whilst never being fey, and confusing while never being merely confused, Jones’ comic work demonstrates his complete mastery of his own idiom, one built out of his unique combination of his obsessions and influences. His clear interest in spirituality is on show throughout, many of the pictures featuring images of fakirs or wizards and having about them the same kind of mystically charged air that can be seen in the work of Ron Rege Jr. albeit crossed, mingled and winkingly debunked by Jones’ obsession with kids cartoons and scatological humour.
At first glance, Jones’s output can appear gnomic and impenetrable but stick with it and rhythms and patterns of dialogue begin to loom out of the murk of scratchy, deliberately crude looking line drawings. He specialises in surprising the viewer and a series of photos taken at the exhibition demonstrate just how well his unique approach and aesthetic translate into other art forms. His love of garish colour and solid sense of design ensuring that none of his work is ever less than arresting. On some occasions, it even becomes strangely moving, capturing a beguiling sense of childish innocence and a pure joy in the simple meeting of form and colour.