Benjamin Jones is a surprisingly normal guy. Before meeting him at the opening for “Sins and Virtues” at Barbara Archer Gallery, my mental image of Benjamin Jones since first seeing his work in 2005 was a brooding, reclusive persona. In my rush to find this enigma before he was swarmed by his other fans, I passed right by the real Jones at the gallery door with only a quick “Hello.”
After asking the gallery assistant for Mr. Jones’ whereabouts, I’m sure I became a bit flushed with embarrassment. This jolly man, dressed in plaid shorts and a simple, short-sleeved button down—who was now telling me about burying dolls in his backyard as a kid—was simply not what I anticipated. The meeting threw me for a loop, but as a consequence, Jones’ work has taken on an even more twisted and layered meaning than I had originally assumed.
Jones has merged outsider art, Southern vernacular, and more than a few quirks that only the depths of his mind can create, forming a style unique to himself. His current series, “Sins and Virtues,” addresses the classic motifs of the seven virtues and seven deadly sins within a world of pop culture and contemporary values.
The titles of Jones’ pieces, in spite of their naive diction, reflect the times through clever hyperbole: Pride. USA, Level: Code Red. Playing On Fears, Nuclear Winter, etc. Despite his relatively broad subject matter, Jones’ imagery remains remarkably intimate.
Pride. USA. uses a collage of drawings, postcards, and colored paper to create Jones’ usual spindly-armed figure in a long patterned dress. In the cut up drawings, evidence remains of marks made and later erased. A postcard forms the top of the head and provides a dialog for the figure.
The clipping of the postcards struck me as surprisingly personal—again disproving my initially idea of the “enigmatic” Benjamin Jones. The writing tells of its author’s trip through an area near “The Chatahoochie” where “the food is good too.” For figures that seem so fictional, this addition pulls back the curtain a little bit further on Jones and his work.
Paired with the title of the piece, Pride. USA, I can’t help but think of the Woody Guthrie song, “This Land is Your Land,” and the American landscape accoladed in the lyrics. Today, pride in relation to the United States denotes blind patriotism more than the appreciation of our natural places. Jones seems more hopeful for the latter type of pride than he seems chiding of the first.
Something Wicked This Way Comes is a bit less hopeful. The drawing is titled after Ray Bradbury’s novel, where two young boys are captured by a nightmarish carnival and a murderous Hamlet sets the stage for a darker side of contemporary culture.
The skeletal figure in the piece appears buried and already returning to the earth. The ribcage looks like either a tree with bare branches or fossilized remains. Jones’ careful patterns of circles and hatch marks around the figure add to the notion of a body submerged in dirt—presumably six feet under. The blue around the skull seems to suggest a halo. Like Hamlet and Bradbury’s Nightshade and Halloway, Jones’ character exists in a time defined by unnatural evils.
The show culminates in Jones’ paper doll cutouts he has drawn and collaged together. We Are the World includes varying sizes of figures, although each follows a consistent visual vocabulary. The figures all have disproportional limbs and faces without of description besides their round eyes, small noses, and small, square teeth.
Siamese twins, animals, skeletal figures, women in long patterned dresses stand in a motley group. The piece reflects his research in compiling of images and observations over the past few years. I like to think of it as a family tree—a family renunion for all the characters Jones has created and revisited over the years.
Jones has been extremely smart about how he approached this series. By collaging imagery from the past two years, he allows every piece to speak to the others, as if the show were part of a storybook narrative. Every piece in the show is worth spending time to consider its part. My only complaint: Benjamin Jones doesn’t show frequently enough.
“Sins and Virtues” is on view at Barbara Archer Gallery through January 7th.