|It was almost exactly thirty-one years agoon February 17, 1976, to be precisethat Kim Jones set the art world ablaze with angry controversy when, in the course of a performance at California State University, Los Angeles, he ignited a cage of live rats. And not only the art world gasped. In one of those rare instances where an artist reaches, whether intentionally or not, beyond the prescribed confines of our contemporary art scene, Jones achieved a notoriety that eventually involved the media, academic politics and the criminal justice system.
The screams of the ratsand the empathetic screams of the artist, as a part of his performancehave thankfully long since died down. Now we have a welcome opportunity to review the subsequent history of Jones’s work at that same location. Call it a return engagement. Having originated at the University at Buffalo Art Gallery of the State University of New York, the retrospective opening here anticipates no repeat performance of that controversy. It must be said, however, that the documentation, drawings and sculptures included in the exhibition are no less radicallyand importantlydisturbing than “The Rat Piece.”
It’s instructive to go back to Mudman, the artist’s alter ego, who began walking the streets of Los Angeles in the early 1970s, and has continued appearing in various modified forms and in disparate, even international locations since that time. In the current show, he makes a frequent appearance in the form of documentation, drawings and modified photographs, as the central recurring figure in Jones’s imaginative world. Mudman, as his name implies, makes his appearances faceless, masked, and thickly coated with mud; on his back, he carries an ungainly sculptural burden created out of sticks, chicken wire and tape, and a variety of other media that give it the appearance of dreadful weight and acute discomfort. Think of it as a prison, a crucifix, a cancerous growth… The metaphorical associations abound. Mudman is a vision of everyman’s suffering, and his peregrinations hold up the mirror to the often painful human odyssey through life.
|And those rats? Hard to explain, hard to defend an act of wanton cruelty, unless in the context of other, often far greater acts of human cruelty that provided the historical context for Jones’s performance at the time. This personal history included service in the nightmare of the Vietnam war, where Jones and his fellow US marines would torture rats in the mud-holes where they spent their days, out of anger, out of cynicism, out of spite, perhaps directed at the callousness of the political contingencies that led them there. Sheer boredom could be it, or, in a larger context, the act reflected human fear or indifference in regards to the well-being of other creatures that share this planet with us. Maybe the rats and the the whole invocation of suffering tapped into our ancient, primordial impulses to ward off the blows of the gods through ritual acts of sacrifice. Let’s face it, in the course of human history, humanity has been guilty of far worse deeds than the immolation of a handful of rats. Jones’s action was intended precisely to confront us with that history, and with the deeply disturbing understanding that the veneer of what we believe to be our more enlightened civilization is thin indeed.
It’s this part of ourselves that we encounter in the other work in Jones’s extensive repertory. His schematic renderings of imaginary battlefield situations are grounds for contemplation regarding the impersonal futility of military strategies that take no account of the human lives at risk. The drawings have a deceptive, child-like simplicity and directness, along with a surreal quality. Their whimsical delicacy of composition and line belies the brutal reality of the military confrontation that we know they represent. It is with a kind of sanitary detachment that our eye engages them: war, as for a child, becomes a curiously innocent tactical game where lives and materiel can be theoretically destroyed with no real consequences. Think of it as an infinitely complex video game, without the gore and frenzy.
The grotesque vision of Mudman is further pursued in other, very different drawings of phantasmagorical scenes and the similarly altered photographs to which Jones has returned over the years. Their ecstatically eroticand especially phallicreferences celebrate that part of the human psyche where chaos, primitive sexuality and the propensity for violence and domination reign supreme. This is a vision in which the veneer of civilization is dismantled to reassert a primal genetic heritage that our species finds difficult, if not impossible to shed. It’s at once joyful and fearsome. Jones has a canny feel for its subconscious power. The artist confronts us with a part of our humanity we may not be proud of but which, if we are honest, we recognize as both Jones’ and ours.
“Mudman: The Odyssey of Kim Jones” is an important opportunity to see the artist in a broader historical context than the single act that originally brought him notoriety. That performance clarified his connection, certainly, with other artists of the same period who were putting their bodies on the line to challenge taboos around personal vulnerability, physical exposure, and the darker side of sex. In this context, we may think of Chris Burden, Barbara T. Smith, Paul McCarthy, and the Kipper Kids. The current exhibition invites us to see Jones also as a direct descendent of visionaries as diverse as Bosch and Goya (and as a close cousin, say, to the contemporary British Chapman brothers). With these forebears the artist shares uncompromising investigations into the shadowy, often tormented side of human experience conveyed in a language none of us can fail to understand, through both recognition and repulsion, deep down in the gut.