New York

Ronald Jones

Metro Pictures

The fundamentally literary structure of Ronald Jones’ sculpture has been one of its most fascinating but also most problematic aspects. His work of the late ’80s was often challenged for its dependence on texts by the artist (available at the gallery, but not on display) for allusive resonance. Who but an architectural historian, after all, would have recognized a shape incorporated into one body of work as the footprint of Erich Mendelsohn’s 1933 Columbushaus, a Modernist masterpiece taken over as a Nazi torture center? And yet having the artist decode the reference in the accompanying text seemed to preempt the viewer’s interpretive rights, as though Jones, a formidable critic, were intent on becoming a closed circuit: artist, critic, and audience all at once. Jones’ later solution to this dilemma was to make his texts into freestanding plaques that were distinct elements within the sculptural groups, and thus part of the material to be interpreted rather than a dubiously authoritative metacommentary. But when, extending the strategy logically, the artist presented his texts as an audioguide tour of a 1993 exhibition, the sculptures on view did not, alas, bear examination for the duration of the recorded monologue.

For the four new works recently on view, Jones has wisely chosen both simpler, less layered imagery and more accessible subject matter. Relatively concise titles clearly signal what is at stake: The bed Ethel Rosenberg slept in the night before her execution; The bed Neil Armstrong slept in his first night back from the moon; and, presented together as a single tableau, The bed Jack Ruby slept in the night before he shot Lee Harvey Oswald and The chair Dorothy Kilgallen sat in as she interviewed Jack Ruby during his murder trial. Each sculpture re-creates, based on photographs, the historic piece of furniture at smaller-than-life size. Taking a cue, perhaps, from McDermott & McGough’s use of fictional dates, Jones has dated each sculpture as though he began work on it when the photo was taken, thus 1953–1998,1969–1998, 1963–1998, and 1964–1998, respectively.

This is the stuff of recent history, of course; since we can imagine that very little sleep took place in those beds on the nights in question, it may be that history for Jones is not a nightmare from which we are trying to awaken but a case of insomnia from which we find little surcease, just as it is for contemporary novelists like Robert Coover, Don DeLillo, and Norman Mailer. For baby-boomers like Jones, obsessed with where they were the moment they heard President Kennedy was shot, it is also the stuff of a kind of perverse nostalgia. Perhaps this is why the objects have been reconstructed at a child’s scale.

Still, with the exception of the rather unnerving Neil Armstrong piece—in his one departure from the photographs, Jones has covered it with a sheer, shiny bedspread woven of metallic thread, and it looks more suited to a robot than a human being—the potential resonances of these works are choked off by their strict adherence to their visual sources. When Thomas Demand creates similar reconstructions, he transforms them back into photographs, thus abstracting them, ironing out details, and forcing the viewer to rebuild the image in turn. Jones’ sculptures, by contrast, are so concrete that their titles are almost the only threads leading them into the realm of the imagination.

Barry Schwabsky