“Multiple paper sizes and stocks bound together with a spiral wire and wrapped between thick chipboard covers.” So reads the highly utilitarian description of Ben Jones’s new book in its accompanying press release, but it’s also as good a definition of the different incarnations of “manliness” — the purported subject of the volume — as anything to be found on its carnation pink and lime green pages.
Jones and editor Dan Nadel of Picture Box have collected short essays, poems, and interviews on the topic from writers, artists, and friends, and situated them in ideological and physical opposition to multi-sized and colored sections documenting Jones’s recent bodies of work. The book mainly focuses his 2012 Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, exhibition, The Video, but also includes drawings, comics, videos, paintings, video paintings, and exhibition documentation from the last four years.
Jones was one-third of the artist collective Paper Rad with Jessica Ciocci and Jacob Ciocci, the now-defunct Providence, Rhode Island group that produced a proliferation of comics, music videos, installations, performances, sculptures, records, zines and the like in the early aughts. Their works, colored in vivid, vibrating RGB, operated through the appropriation and juxtapositioning of pop cultural and amateur early Internet characters and memes. Since their disintegration, Jones has charted a similarly eclectic path, producing programming for Cartoon Network and commercial video and animation work as well as a menagerie of gallery shows that moved towards a notionally more streamlined kinetic or pop sensibility. Since relocating to Los Angeles in recent years, Jones has partnered with his former gallerist Jeffrey Deitch at MOCA to stage several immersive video installations that deliberately tread the line between art and spectacle.
With this new book project, Men’s Group: The Video, I imagine that the multiplicity of viewpoints offered by dudes like artist Joe Bradley, writer Keith McCullough, gallerist Phil Grauer and Jones’s recurring demented Gumby are meant to create the impression that the artist in question is the ultimate evolved male. Jones is as aware of Middle American archetypes, sexual power dynamics and contemporary gender-driven self-hate as any Judith Butler-quoting MFA, but he’s packaged their schizophrenia in a convincing conceptual and aesthetic package, projecting its oozy and indeterminate narratives onto his oozy and indeterminate artistic work.
Not to backpedal from what’s beginning to sound like a feminist polemical wind-up, but I find that work to be both perceptually and phenomenologically stimulating and psychically comforting — the equivalent of meeting a sort of cute but super weird guy at a bar and finding your meandering conversation both bizarre and surprising in its engenderment of human connection within the Uncanny Valley.
And I’m largely charmed by the content and form of the book, as any good graphic design booster and amateur identity politics conversationalist would be (as I’m sure many others also will be once this beautiful object from designer Norman Hathaway moves out into the world). The contributions speak, in highly personal terms, to the binary between, on one hand, the primitive physical and modern capital or intellectual figurations of manliness, and, on the other, the slippery morphological threshold to manhood proper. I responded, in particular, to alt-illustration godfather Gary Panter’s account of the sometimes great, sometimes terrifying triangulation of a MAN in relation to his BABY [sic], which made me go “AW” and become immediately self-conscious of my own, embarrassingly normative, femaleness. And all this in relation to Jones’s body of work, which is interested in unseating our assumptions of popular culture, media aesthetics, even hard-edge painting, and mining their not-quite empty visual forms as language.
It just made me wonder why the forms in Jones’s video paintings are allowed to disassociate from their traditional reference points but the contributors to this volume were not. Since it stands to reason that, in contemporary society, the agency and meaning generation of, say, an Al Held AbEx painting or a Simpson’s cartoon (chartable reference points in Jones’s output) is as real as that of a flesh-and-blood person, why weren’t the sexes, occupations, or political and social positions of contributors allowed to stray just a bit more? David Kramer writes of Jones’s unmoored cultural signifiers that they read as narrative because of their familiar vocabulary, “yet you’re unhinged within it,” a technique Jones attributes to the subversion of linear narrative traditionally associated with the medium of animation. One wonders what might be mined in the conventions of the essayistic artist book if approached as virgin material.
Unlike Nicole Rudick’s assertion in the introduction (labeled “rebuttal”) that “getting your first pubic hair is the starter’s pistol,” Jones and company aren’t talking about a universal embodied experience but a very specific, intellectualized, self-aware but hyper-hetero version of art world manliness. One that leaves readers feeling placated that they too find riding the New York subway as challenging and identity affirming as riding tractors upstate, or enjoy making off-color zines about poodles making zines referencing Fellini films. But not everyone is invited to participate in such a recondite conversation.
Which takes me to my real issue with the book (beyond all these everyday, do-I-even-mention-them cavils). As it turns out, it has nothing to do with gender, and everything to do with a disappointing elitism. In a reprinted IM conversation with Nadal from 2009, Jones trivializes and dismisses director Judd Apatow, purveyor of the new mass-masculinity par excellence. Nadal suggests that Apatow’s 2009 movie Funny People was, for all its flaws, as good a movie as he’d seen about the struggle of manhood, “the knotty problem of acting like a grown up.” Jones goes on to characterize Apatow as “weak” and calls Funny People nothing but a “pathetic confession.”
Normally, I’d take this in stride as some typical reactionary hipster bullshit, but it resonated with me in a sticky and persistent way coming from Jones. It’s the populist coming down on the people, after all. But really, it’s because Jones and his work — from his Paper Rad aesthetics to his commercial animation practice to the contemporary “fine” art shown in this book — actually remind me a lot of Apatow and his idiom.
For all their dick jokes, I’ve always found Apatow’s characters easy to identify with, because he seems intent on qualifying manliness — or the lack thereof — as a condition of being rather than a physical state. Don’t get me wrong, the crudely sketched female characters and road to manhood through marriage and babies warrants (and has received) its own conversation elsewhere, but the male characters’ posturing, from Ben Stone to Daniel Desario, has always struck me as startlingly genuine.
And I feel the same way about Ben Jones. To whatever extent “manliness” is present in his work, or plays a role in its conceptual framework, it’s as a lens or conduit to other simultaneously more universal and specific ideas — the numbing and phantasmagorical potential of the journey, the hilariously ossifying effects of the artistic ego, or the comfortingly consistent resistance to commitment of “New Final Master #3” — the totally brilliant lynchpin of a painting anchoring his MOCA show, a flattened rendering of a VHS tape that’s been endlessly scrawled on and relabeled to signify that this copy is definitely — maybe— the finished version.
There’s no problem at all with Jones exploring issues of a hyper-specific, largely traditional conception of masculine identity. But it’s his self-imposed critical distance from the satire and irony injected into these works that I don’t quite buy. They don’t read as rarified post-minimalist objects, they read as candy-coated receptacles of self-hate and just a little bit of perverse but lingering hope. I’m not suggesting there isn’t a strong helping of satire in Jones’s decision to take on manliness for this, his robust and virile mid-career monograph of work (and, delightfully, teeny tiny Instagram-mined screenshots of said work). But that doesn’t mean it should read as insincere.
Ben Jones: Men’s Group: The Video, edited by Dan Nadel, with text by Dan Nadel, David Kramer, Nicole Rudick, Peter Saul, Gary Panter, Joe Bradley, Keith McCulloch, Byron Coley, and Phil Grauer, is currently available from the MOCA store.