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April 4 - May 8, 2009 at CSU Fullerton, Orange Coast College, both Orange County

by Kathy Zimmerer

"Self Portrait," 1950,
Intaglio, 16 x 10”.
Photo credit: Gene Ogami

"Girl for Goya," 1963
Lithograph, 30 X 22”
Tamarind: Edition of 20.

"Annunciation," 1959
Intaglio, 28 x 25”.

Ten years after his death, John Paul Jones (1924-1999), a brilliant printmaker, painter and sculptor whose subtle works of art are rich in visual poetry and symbolic nuance, remains an enigmatic figure in contemporary art. Mike McGee, Gallery Director at CSU Fullerton, has organized an extensive, two-venue retrospective which includes more than 100 selections delineating his contributions to modern and contemporary American art. Founder of the printmaking programs at both UCLA and UCI, Jones was a revered teacher and an inspired mentor to many young artists. His meditative spirit lives on in their work, a cross section of which is the focus of yet a third exhibition “John Paul Jones and His Circle” (Coastline College, Orange County).

Well-known for his prints, and in particular a master of the art of intaglio, Jones created a series of beautifully composed geometric images early in his career (in 1950) that are classics today.  Interlocking planes flit in and out of a deep gold ground in “Yellow.”Black Table” depicts a table with anthropomorphic legs that are tightly interwoven into a rhythmic composition of skewed geometric shapes. In ”Landscape No. 2” a series of dancing lines flow over the paper to create the horizon, only to be interrupted by quirky arrows and dots. Best of all is his jaunty “Self-Portrait.” His dapper figure with a bow tie is composed in a precise cubist rendering of planes and modeling that endows it with an enormous presence.

Slowly Jones weaned himself away from the geometry of his early prints because he felt that the spare imagery was wrung dry. He thus moved toward the attenuated, magical figurative work that was to become a life long focus. In “Red Woman” (etching and aquatint, 1958) the change is acute; a shadowy nude bathed in crimson light floats out from the edge of the composition, elegantly emerging from the luminous background. “Annunciation” (1959) combines the strongest elements of his geometric and figurative orientation to create an image overflowing with spirituality. A stately Virgin Mary is seen in profile on a throne while the entire composition dissolves into a glowing study of dark and light, texture and line, imbuing the whole with an air of mystery.

Jones worked at the Tamarind Lithography Workshop starting in the early sixties, where he produced the startling lithograph, “Girl for Goya” (1963). A monumental female figure dominates the composition. The figure is fragmented, rubbed away and then defined, the background remaining a series of frenetic white scratches; the entire print vibrates with intensity and emotion. In “Paradise Gate, Maine Gate” (lithograph, 1980), abstraction has almost completely taken over as barely perceptible figures dance in and around vertical posts, becoming elusive spirits.

Concurrent with his printmaking endeavors, Jones moved towards his signature figurative style in his paintings of the early sixties. In many of them the figures barely emerge from the background, yet have a fierce sense of personality and strength. In “Portrait of a Writer” (1962), his subject is shrouded in a dense veil of chiaroscuro, the modeling of her features subtly defined and ghostly, the essence of her soul quietly conveyed. A beautiful woman with a mask-like face stares out boldly in “Everywoman” (1968). She is bathed in a monochromatic glaze of sepia color, which only enhances her grace. In another figurative painting Jones turns his laser eye on emotions, as one man’s terror is acutely portrayed in a series of white slashing marks radiating out from his head, his mouth open in a grimace. Abstraction edges out the figure in “The Asylum Dancer’s Notebook p.1,” as Jones delicately marks the acrylic surface with touches of graphite and colored pencil. These dainty markings delineate and enliven the grisaille haze.

Jones turns back to geometry in his lyrical sculptures. “Flemish Mirror” harkens back to his early use of interlocking planes. A rectangle of stainless steel is encased in a wood frame and is hung at a skewed angle. The shimmering surface of the steel bears all the hallmarks of Jones’ hand as linear squiggles and marks meander over the surface, blunting the sharp geometric angles of the sculpture. “Parsons Attic” (1988) expresses Jones’ abiding interest in negative space. Linear wood steps march up into space and are firmly anchored by a frame composed of a series of rectangles. In both sculptures, the lines continue into infinity. His use of complex spatial relationships echoes Russian Constructivist compositions.

Jones’ drawings are a marvel. Especially noteworthy is his incisive “Untitled” charcoal drawing (1974) of a nude couple in a slow dance. In a few delicate lines Jones concisely portrays the beauty and poetry of their embrace. Framed in a fragile rectangle and surrounded by Jones’ delicate markings, the couple moves sensuously through space. “Near Green” (1970) is another masterpiece of draftsmanship. At first the male figure seems tentative and ambiguous, emerging from a beautifully textured terra cotta colored ground touched with a smidgen of green. Yet his linear figure, though thin and wiry, relays a sense of power. A late geometric drawing, “Sightlines 2d” (1996), is akin to his sculptures in the use of infinite space; it is also hung diagonally. A graphite grid contains a welter of rectangles, circles, squares and his random markings and ghostly images.

The pleasure of seeing Jones’ oeuvre reassembled in this excellent retrospective cannot be overstated. Jones produced an astonishing output that was consistently inventive, quirky and mystical. Not allowing himself to be confined to one medium, Jones was unafraid to experiment and had the capacity and underlying understanding of art to easily switch between two and three dimensions. From the precise beauty of his early dynamic geometric prints and later rhythmic sculptures to the rich beauty of his shadowy figurative paintings and drawings, Jones’ piercing eyes and sure hands adroitly captured the essence of the human spirit.