New York

Ronald Jones

In 1985 Ronald Jones organized an exhibition for the Nexus Contemporary Art Center in Atlanta, where he lived at the time. Entitled “Public Art: A Blunt Instrument,” the show introduced Southerners to contemporary art that responded to the knotty historical predicament outlined in Jean Baudrillard’s essays on the “simulacrum,” which Jones quoted on several occasions in his catalogue text. Baudrillard’s Simulations was first published in English two years earlier, and was therefore only beginning to acquire the rank of cult classic in an art world ravenous for a “paradigm shift” or, failing that, at least a theoretical alibi and a shiny new tag. In his reading of Baudrillard, Jones found reason to believe that artists could destabilize the petrifying effects of a social syndrome that the French sociologist described in terms of the “reality principle."

Ever since then, Jones has produced works of art that, with few exceptions (his work with the International Maritime Code comes to mind), show his determination to prove (in his words) that the “hopelessly compromised” formal language of utopian Modernism, and its once hopeful equation of social reform and material progress, are nothing but a “heartless charade.” This he does by making seductive objects whose seemingly abstract forms turn out to document some historical manifestation of barbarism. For his recent show here, Jones has employed his brand of historical materialist estheticism to spawn five deluxe sculptures in various combinations of wood, granite, stainless steel, and bronze. In these works, Jones has compared the sculptural practices of Constantin Brancusi and Jean Arp with the morphology of the human immunodeficiency virus, among other malignancies. Making the point that the synthesis of utopian and industrial structures that typified European High Modernism did nothing to prevent the perpetuation of human atrocities, or that abstract art is powerless when it comes to resisting the legitimation of the rich and powerful, Jones has offered us one (at this point familiar) historical insight in a trade-off that consigns numerous others to oblivion. Surely there is already a sufficient number of obstacles to historical consciousness in this simulacral society without artists adding to the problem with specious ahistorical similes.

And for what? In order to realize a special dispensation that permits the politically conscious artist to produce seductive objects for a voracious marketplace? To judge from this sell-out show, the fact that they contain self-incriminating subtexts merely adds to their contemporary appeal, adds to their capacity to ingratiate by reflecting a warm glow of humanitarian cultural legitimation onto today’s empathic, hip collectors. Were the historical subtexts as legible on the surfaces of Jones’ works as their luxury now is; were he not to quarantine the key to their decipherment in his titles (where they are bracketed, yet further, within parentheses), they would undoubtedly lose in allure what they would gain in historical clarity and political credibility. But then, that wouldn’t be groovy, would it?

One other post-Conceptual innovation seems noteworthy. A curious kind of site-specific opportunism has become detectable in Jones’ work. Consider his reliefs based upon Erich Mendelsohn’s Columbushaus, 1932, shown in New York, a city whose Jewish population exceeds that of the entire state of Israel, and where Jews figure among our most acquisitive collectors of contemporary art; consider his Japanese relocation-center project, shown in the “Forest of Signs” exhibition on the edge of a section of Los Angeles known as “Little Tokyo"; and consider these slick malignancies, exhibited at the dark center of the AIDS pandemic.

The most frequently quoted sentence from Walter Benjamin’s Theses on the Philosophy of History reads, “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” Written at the end of the ’30s, this is a formulation with which Jones clearly would be sympathetic. Less frequently cited is the sentence that follows it, which, on this occasion, I include as a cautionary note: “And just as such a document is not free of barbarism, barbarism taints also the manner in which it was transmitted from one owner to another.” As a politically engaged artist, Jones will need something more dialectically subtle than these “blunt instrument(s)” if he is to respond humanely to the difficult challenge with which Walter Benjamin concluded his seventh thesis and “brush history against the grain."

David Deitcher