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January 9 - February 22, 2004 at Square Blue Gallery, Orange County

by Roberta Carasso

The irresistible lure of Post World War II art movements, trends, and fashionable styles had no effect on the art of John Paul Jones, who earned a reputation for working against the mainstream. Fearlessly independent, he pursued only those ideas which were important to him. Jones mastered many media, but he made his name initially as a printmaker. He came to California in the 1950s primarily to establish the Printmaking Department at UCLA. Later he joined the UC Irvine faculty. His influence on students and fellow artists was immense at the time, continues less than five years after his passing, and very likely well beyond.

This exhibition spans the years of retirement, when Jones left teaching to settle in Oregon. There he continued to create: sculptures which still remain in the grounds of his former rustic home, small indoor forms, and many drawings and paintings. Even with illness and impending death, Jones worked continuously, always probing artistic solutions to problems he established with his unique sensibilities. For Jones, art making was a search for what is essential.

While much of Jones' art resides in major collections internationally, the bulk of the Oregon work was rarely seen. Uncrated and seen here for the first time, these paintings, drawings and sculptures are a decidedly metaphysical solution to the artistic issues he grappled with throughout his career, and the last outpouring of a consummate artist.

“Caprichos” (detail of left panel ),
1996, acrylic on canvas,
triptych, 30 x 30” each.

“Soft Skin” (detail),
1997, a/c, 22 x 22”.

"Stomptin' at the Savoy"(detail of left
panel), 1997, a/c, diptych, 22 x 22" each.

Before relocating to Oregon, Jones' two-dimensional art had a quiet yet volatile presence. Figures were secluded, haunting, lonely, and enveloped in existential uncertainty that conveyed the ultimately solitary human being. Simultaneously executed abstract sculptures, prints and collage dealt with types of ambiguities that occur when the dynamics of form, pierced by lights and darks, air and shadow, are placed in an unrestrained internal and external space. In both approaches there was always an off-kilter contradiction, clarity amid enigma, that was indicative of his questioning mind, a mind that pushed aesthetic resolution beyond his facile skills.

The current exhibition is a sampling of work made from 1990 to 1998 (Jones died in 1999). Simplicity, directness and power demonstrate how the mature Jones, realizing his mortality, sought to come closer to what constitutes the core of art, and not busy himself with nonessentials. Several raw wooden sculptures, a metal hanging sculpture of circular and flat, rods, rings, and dowels, a pencil drawing triptych, and a series of many circular metallic-colored oil paintings ranging in tones from blues, browns, and red grays are included here.

The wooden constructions have much in common with his earlier sculpture, although these are far more minimal. About a hand’s grasp in size, the base is angular, step-like, cut out blocks of wood glued together. A three-foot vertical four-sided wood strip penetrates the base and creates a sense that the rather small construction below is being led to something much larger than itself. The thrust of the wood rod also extends the space of the smaller wooden mound, endowing each piece with monumentality. With these blocks of wood, particularly in the hanging metal piece, Jones arrives at the equivalent of a sculptural mark, the reduction of sculpture to its essence. It is significant that the three-dimensional pieces lead us to understand and appreciate his last paintings and drawings. Varying media make their intrinsic demands, but the thread that ties all the work together is that Jones sought to reach that level where he could find the ultimate mark, the fundamental DNA, the distinct characteristic intrinsic to sculpture, painting or drawing.

The triptych Caprichos is about linear drawing and mark-making. Each panel is filled with assorted strokes, a hieroglyphic that is reined in by a thick red angular strip present in different angles on each of the three. The circular paintings are a search for marks that translate to surface and touch. Random dark marks appear on the flat surface as remaining fossils of Jones' hands, another indication of how important touch was to the artist. The paintings, like the man and his art, are unpretentious in spirit and altogether authentic in tone.

The Oregon works have strong ties to what Jones created before. The decisive factor is that his California work was a response to existential questions concerning the human being; the late works, represented by the selections in this show, dealt with artistic questions of shapes, space and internal and external structures. The answers he found, in particular, how much the sculptural, painted or drawn mark can reveal in its compressed essence, amount to his artistic expression of existence. Thus, Jones left the world still coming to terms with his over fifty-year artistic quest.