The on-ramp to the art future is on vivid display at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth in the latest Focus exhibition by multihyphenate artist Ben Jones -- painter, animator, comic-book illustrator, performer, storyteller and furniture designer.
He would prefer not to segregate his talents into classifiable cubbyholes. He moves seamlessly among the disciplines of comic books and animated films, painted canvases and computer graphics, two-dimensional screen images and 3-D sculptural objects. He is as conversant in an animation studio as he is in the museum gallery.
There was no grinding of gears when he dropped the TV cartoon he was working on in Hollywood for Cartoon Network to come to Fort Worth to install his show and, on the day of the opening, to do a performance piece to accompany it. The multitasking is exhaustive, yet the ease with which he slides from medium to medium, carrying his recognizable bag of tricks with him, is what makes his work seem so directional.
Jones has assimilated some of the most powerful art and graphic signatures of his time. He was born in 1977, but he has mined the graphics from 1968's Yellow Submarine, the colors from black-light posters of the '70s, the minimalism of Barnett Newman and Donald Judd, and early video game characters where the coarse pixels look like they were lifted from tic-tac-toe games. He uses all these old styles to create his own signature and binds the parts with an unmistakable color palette of Day-Glo hyper hues that are almost shrill.
He says these consistencies of color, line and characters are a language that can be combined in a hierarchical manner and acknowledges, "I have a look, but I am concerned with making work that transcends the sum of its parts."
In two of the Focus galleries, Jones has mounted large painted canvases on the wall. On top of the painted geometry of broad lines, he projects his computerized animations so that the conventional canvas becomes alive with movement. He has used a new animation for one gallery and an older piece for the other. This is typical; Jones repurposes and reinvents his favorite characters and graphic devices.
Take his ladders, for example. They have been with him for several years. In the gallery brochure he states, "They are simply painted wood, but they are painted and assembled in an almost comical way, like a satire or parody of a ladder. Then at certain points they begin to be ladders again, meaning they aid in the ascension of the piece, both conceptually and physically."
In a video for his last show, they appear on the screen, morphing from vertical climbing aids to horizontal tracks that his dog, Kay-Nine, uses for locomotion. For this show, the ladders are on the wall, and the dog has become bench seating.
Martin Puryear's Ladder for Booker T. Washington is visible from the gallery where Jones' ladders are installed. "I didn't want to go up against a master," he says, pointing to Puryear's elegant split-sapling sculpture that reaches for the heavens, "Had I known, I wouldn't have brought my ladders."
His discomfort at the inevitable comparison is understandable but unnecessary. His upstart ladders hold their own; they seem the logical offspring. Puryear's ladder is lovely, but it is static. Jones' ladders have multiple personalities and a dozen incarnations -- from a line drawing to 3-D wall hanging.
The Puryear is not the only similarity on display. There is a Jones/Warhol link that is hard to overlook. The garish pink and yellow signage in front of the museum that announces the ongoing Warhol exhibit could be equally as appropriate for Jones' exhibit; their use of flat brilliant colors is similar. With so many connectors at work in the galleries -- Puryear's Ladder, a Judd sculpture, the silk-screened Warhols -- Ben Jones looks every bit the heir apparent.