With his latest show, artist Dennis Michael Jones has literally and figuratively moved uptown. After solos at 4731 and Tangent last year and at Cass Cafe the year before that, showing at the Robert Kidd Gallery in Birmingham marks Jones’ entry into the Detroit art world, big time. Kidd shows the likes of abstract expressionist Hans Hoffman and pop artist Larry Rivers, and people lay down serious money — in the tens of thousands of dollars and more — to buy art there. Jones has also worked his way out of the melancholic regionalism that Detroit’s ruined landscape so often (and quite understandably) inspires. Instead, he dives headlong into broader art currents.
In the new work (all made this year), playful Pillsbury Doughboy-like figures and a predominantly white palette replace the malevolent urchins and dark earth tones of Jones’ past efforts. His engagement with larger aesthetic issues is evident in his concern with the mechanics of art making, the process of give and take between artist and artwork. That dialogue is symbolized by two motifs in the new paintings, drawings and sculptures: the boy figure, representing the artist, and the black four-sided figure of the picture frame, representing the fleeting sense of closure that comes from finishing a work of art, that in turn sets off the creative process anew.
The tabletop sculpture “Hills” (installed appropriately enough near the entrance in the front of the gallery) is a good place to begin seeing how this interplay works. It features several miniature figures gathered around either side of an open black square. It takes a little walking around the piece to see that the figures are staged as mirror images, a metaphor for the world inside the artwork as being a reflection of the artist standing outside it and vice versa.
The largest painting in the show, “Restructured Space (Maker),” is made from two 8-foot-wide canvases mounted side by side. It is built up in layers of a patchwork of painted canvas fragments collaged onto the surface. These elements are integrated into the overall composition with more painting on top. On left is the boy figure; on the right, falling off the bottom edge, is the picture frame. A black outline of a face, painted on one of the collaged canvas pieces, is partially visible near the center. Part of the face has been cut up into smaller pieces and rearranged so that lines defining chin and lips have become little abstract squiggles echoing brush strokes that appear on the other side of the painting. Pastel blue and red show through the white top layer here and there, providing visual anchors for holding the composition together. The painting is a compendium of expressionistic styles from Jean Dubuffet to Jean-Michel Basquiat and a true tour de force.
Another major piece is the sculpture “Toy.” Standing nearly 8 feet tall, the sculpture presents the boy figure, reaching up toward the sky, standing atop a pedestal. The pedestal has four large wheels and a heavy rope at the base like a child’s pull toy on steroids, although the elements are not really functional. The boy figure has an erection that points upward, mimicking the vertical orientation of the sculpture. Yet the interpretation can as easily be reversed to read the sculpture as imitating the erect penis, a jibe at the age-old myth of the macho artist.
As much as Jones may seem to poke fun at artistic clichés, as an artist of no small ambition himself he also embraces his symptom in true contemporary therapeutic fashion.
A smart detail is Jones’ use of black wood molding to actually frame the drawings and small paintings, thus turning the frame symbol into reality. This show is full of intelligent, subtle touches like that with the artist in control at every turn.
The recent work of Dennis Michael Jones is on view until June 24 at Robert Kidd Gallery, located at 107 Townsend in downtown Birmingham across from the Townsend Hotel.Vince Carducci writes about art for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]