New York

Ronald Jones

Metro Pictures

In the Whitney Museum’s show “Mind Over Matter,” 1990, Ronald Jones’ crisp, deadpan redeployment of Minimalist stylistic conventions seemed to grant that movement a stay of extinction in exchange for its rematerialization of grim politico-historical events. The range of his work was as impressive as it was rare: from cool, cartographic indictments of formalist self-referentiality to tear jerking memorials in which Joseph Kosuth’s “Platonic” chair doubles as the electric chair of state-sponsored murder. In each instance, politicization takes place in the mode being critiqued, setting up a kind of narrative wherein the story of this coup d’état is told in the dialect of the previous regime.

Similarly, the six new sculptures exhibited here mischievously yoke together disparate, mainly 20th-century historical references—Malcolm X, Chernobyl, Jack Ruby’s bed—as well as motifs, such as a wooden model of the cabinet from Salvador Dali’s Weaning from the Food Chair, 1934, and one of the table from Giorgio de Chirico’s drawing, The Faithful Wife, 1917. Their presentation is now more rough hewn—in Wet Job (This cabinet . . .) (all works 1991), the Dali cabinet supports a raw wooden beam that pierces a replica of the radio cassette player used to hide the terrorist bomb aboard Pan Am flight 103. Atop the beam is a copy of a prehistoric hermaphroditic sculpture stumbled upon in France in 1917. Whereas the pieces in the Whitney kept their juxtapositions to an elegant minimum, Jones seems to have concluded that more is better. Here he doubles, even triples, the number of units comprising the individual sculptures, recombining slightly altered modules in various configurations and ballooning the explanatory labels; in several instances, the texts exceed the length of this review.

Written in a flat, “neutral” style suggesting ethnographic museum labels or encyclopedia entries, these texts have always been essential in establishing the critical difference between Jones’ work and that of the formalist sculpture it mimics. In previous work he maintained this distinction, employing text with restraint in order to guide the viewer into the political dimension. His current indulgence in textual bloat, however, reveals Jones’ imperfect management of these linguistic supplements. The tone falters; “off” usages crop up, and there is an overall sadistic glibness to the density with which historical imponderables are piled one on top of another. In You Ain’t Gonna Make It With Anyone Anyhow. . ., we learn that the sculpture, titled after a line from the Beatles tune “Revolution,” includes references as diverse as moon-dust from Apollo 12 and a remark André Breton made about Yves Tanguy, in an interview with Charles Henri-Ford.

Where, in the past, allusions to other artists were implicit in his choice of stylistic modes, here all six plaques begin and end with references to “revolutionary” artists. Jones’ was to have been a quiet revolution, one in which everything would remain reassuringly familiar, and art-world institutions would be none the wiser until it was too late. But here the work compulsively blabs about its dubious desire to be linked with dark, “prophetic art,” mystifying the revolutionary practices it references.

That the plaques are themselves now integrated into the sculptures underscores the presence of language, where, ideally, the work would achieve its ends without linguistic supplements. Jones’ predicament recalls that of the aliens in the film Invasion of the Body-Snatchers, 1956. They strive for a revolutionary anonymity but are unmasked by their wooden speech. Jones’ simulacral sculpture would prefer to remain mute but it must speak in order to set itself apart from and to critique the work it imitates. But in speaking, it discloses not its difference but its radical sameness: it, too, is art striving, above all, to be the next art.

Thad Ziolkowski