Ronald Jones

Ronald Jones’ new work balances a perfect impersonation of formalist abstraction and a strict program of coded meanings. The result is an oscillating, multivocal art that refers to minimalist systems, neo-Expressionist anxiety, and the politics of art, its funding and its designated audience.

His two concurrent shows (bracketed under the title “A Tribute to the Future”) this past summer were based for the most part on an iconography Jones has taken from the International Maritime Code. The symbols are squares and crosses with a clean look and with conventional meanings: “You are in grave danger,” ”I am trying to communicate with you,” etc. Jones assembled his selection of four signs into four discrete pairs, each with one symbol placed above the other, ordered in a sequence that was consistent throughout the two shows. At the satellite High Museum of Art, he painted the squares and crosses in commercial pastel colors directly onto one wall of a small barrel-vaulted gallery that was otherwise empty The cool, even bland tone of the work was undercut by a “distress” narrative revealed by a sequence of texts accompanying the pairs of signs. The anxiety of the narrative was in turn undercut by the catalogue, which reveals that the messages derive from a fixed code, collapsing ostensible meanings into a Baudrillardian social critique.

The effect of the installation was a parody of both systemic Minimalism and the notion of meaning or reference in art. Jones added a political dimension and a conceptualist irony by hanging a large blue-and-white geometric banner over the building’s main entrance—a banner derived from the “Emblem for Cultural Property under the 1954 Hague Convention,” which was intended to protect sites designated as ”cultural“ (presumably by bureaucrats) during wartime. Jones also managed to catch the whole cultural-commercial network in his ironic web. The museum show was an installment of the exhibition series ”Southern Expressions,” sponsored by the investment banking firm Kidder, Peabody & Company, Inc., and the new museum facility itself is hidden in the bowels of a corporate giant. In this context, the affably decorative style of Jones’ murals was immediately accepted as that of corporate-headquarters art, an impersonation that the cute colors and ironic code held in suspension without quite contradicting it. The result was that the art failed to stay firmly in its place: it both affirmed and refused to support the assumptions of the sponsoring corporation and the museum’s public.

At the Heath Gallery some of the risks inherent in Jones’ reliance on irony became more apparent. Unlike the media appropriations in his earlier work, the required translation of his newly appropriated codes can flatten his intended transgressions into cleverness. In this smaller show, the maritime code was presented in its original, deeper colors in small Cibachrome prints, and in small stainless-steel reliefs. The prints look like studies for the murals in the museum facility and have little impact on their own, and the reliefs carry the burden of Jones’ parody less well than the larger works. Jones also exhibited a series of small round reliefs with rectangular elements that are based on the proposed designs for the table used at the US-Vietnam peace talks in Paris. These white, thinly painted pieces have as their reference point a political reality that is now historical enough to also require translation. But they are at least grounded in a shared social experience, and they show that Jones is working on a way out of his effective, but hermetic, reliance on irony.

Glenn Harper