Ben Jones is a rare breed of artist who isn’t content to work in one or two mediums; describing his output requires list-making: comics, digital art, zines, drawings, paintings, sculpture, video, prints, animation, design, music, as well as work that combines two or more of these to produce a third genre, such as video paintings. In the nineties, at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, Jones and the artist and cartoonist Christopher Forgues, a.k.a. C.F., collaborated as Paper Radio, producing zines, comics, and web graphics. As Dan Nadel has written, “A Paper Radio publication could contain subversive fan fiction about the Muppet Babies, elaborate fantasy adventures, psychedelic space operas, or crude slapstick gags.” Following Paper Radio, Jones founded Paper Rad with Jessica Ciocci and Jacob Ciocci, a collective best known for lo-fi, electric-hued zines, videos, net art, and installations that explore the outer reaches of youth and popular culture. Jones’s solo work from the 2000s is characterized by his abiding interest in sacred geometry and occult esoterica: “Ben Jones Approved” geometric patterns that underlay two- and three-dimensional pentagrams, ladders, elaborate animations, and room-size video paintings. More recently, he has produced the animated television series’ The Problem Solverz (Fox) and Stone Quackers (Cartoon Network).
Last month, Jones exhibited a new body of work at The Hole gallery on the Lower East Side. The gallery’s walls and floor are painted a bright, startling white; Jones’s artwork, usually drenched in hot hues, here consists only of graphite-colored oil-stick line drawings. Thirty comics panels painted on thirty white canvases are gathered into several discrete groups. On its face, the work looks retrograde; it has more akin with Jones’s earliest endeavors than with the frenetic, puckish art he has made in recent years. But, as Jones was quick to explain, line drawing has been a vital element of his art from the very beginning.
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Nicole Rudick: Are these paintings of new comics?
Ben Jones: I want to give you the two narratives. There’s the concept of the show, which is hopefully how the audience perceives it and how I approached it creatively — to make a zine first and then to have a meta-art show where I’ve hung the “originals” from the zine. Typically, you’d show the originals in this way at a comic-con or a coffee shop or something like that. I intentionally wanted to present the show in that conceptual context, as a novelty. I took that to the furthest extent by adding the fake red dot you’d see at a coffee-shop art show, to indicate that the work had been bought.
As a painter, I’m constantly chasing that magical, ethereal line or stroke or gesture that is half muscle memory or trance action. You get a lot of that with handwriting and with quick sketching. I’ve fabricated ladders and furniture and video installations that take months of concepting the installation and executing the animation. This is something entirely different — it’s a one-to-one connection with an idea or a drawing or a mark. There’s a narrative to a lot of these pieces and a linear way to think about them, but then we also get to think about comics and about the formal aspects of comics, because comics aren’t just linear storytelling and gags. There is a nuanced, visual-language fuckery that I think is important. Think of Saul Steinberg changing the way people draw in the 1950s or Robert Crumb in the sixties — there are one or two people who have really changed the way we think and draw and understand line drawing. So this is also me firing a shot across the bow.
NR: Putting comics originals on the wall is a loaded idea: the question of whether work intended for the page should be displayed in that context. But then, even though the art on the walls shows up in the printed zine, the artworks aren’t actually comics originals — they’re paintings. But they’re also not paintings, because they’re comics. They’re neither one nor the other.
BJ: They’re definitely not comics. And while it is oil paint on canvas, they’re not paintings. They’re neither, but they are both, which is so fucked up. It’s such a weird feedback loop. You’d get into a lot of trouble saying they were either one, or neither one.
NR: And each panel, within each “strip,” becomes its own canvas.
BJ: The panelization! I forget if it’s Robert Mangold or Frank Stella – there are times when artists panelize paintings, and when you’re photographing it, you don’t see it. I’m sure there’s good writing on this – abstract painting on panels is an absurd thing and I’ve always loved that in a formal way. I could easily have done the paintings on one large canvas, but I loved the exercise of the panelization. And then last year, Jordan Crane told me about a book called Grid Systems in Graphic Design, a manifesto from the sixties by a German guy named Müller-Brockman. It’s about how to use the grid to solve design problems, to organize design elements. It uses the Golden Section and the three-by-four thing. It’s about breaking things down into containers or modular units. If I can get really boring for one second, I’ll tell you another secret that’s not a secret. The grid system says that your gutter space or your baseline should correspond to the thickness of your type. There are all these rules. I never thought to put the same amount of space in all those places.
NR: You said “another secret.” What’s the first secret?
BJ: Well, I am drawing comics again for the first time in, like, ten years. Which isn’t a big deal whatsoever, but creatively it’s great to be able to have access to a language and medium that I’ve used to feed a lot of my other work. Now I can take lessons learned from other projects and apply them to comics. And I’m older and less stupid, which makes the process more fun.
During my last Ace show, I was making all these crazy installations and ping-pong tables and ladders and fifteen-thousand-foot video paintings. When I started drawing comics again, I had a basis for this black-and-white line work. So using the comics as source material, I was drawing, and was able to fully play off the idea that they’re both real comics and aren’t real comics. Everything in this gallery starts from my new body of work.
NR: The zine came first, before the paintings?
BJ: Right, I made the zine and then projected it on the canvas and traced it.
NR: So the zine acts as a kind of prototype?
BJ: Yes, that’s what I learned from animation — to keep everything in a digital state so I can constantly be prototyping.
NR: Very Bauhaus.
BJ: Right, back to the grid system.
NR: Did you pick a canvas material that has a coarser texture so that it would mimic a Ben-Day pattern?
BJ: It’s that, but it’s also what happens when you enlarge on a Xerox. C.F. and I use pencil, so if you were to photocopy a pencil drawing and enlarge it, this is what happens. I wanted to reproduce what my signature comic line would look like blown up, and this canvas worked. C.F. heightens his originals — and so did I, and Mat Brinkman, too. You take the contrast all the way up so that the line gets darker.
NR: When I think of Christopher’s work, I think of pencil, but when I think of yours, I think of all the different media you’ve used, and I think of color. How do you know when you want to do something just in pencil?
BJ: I think I know why Chris does it. He lives a strict and severe existence. He’s a true believer. An analogy for Chris is that he’s in a war and he has to go into battle, so [you should] take your bulletproof vest. And he’d be like, “The bulletproof vest will slow me down and will affect my decision-making on the battlefield.” I think that’s what he’s doing with just using pencil and never erasing — he’s forcing himself in the moment to make confident decisions. You can see that in his drawings.
You have to say something very different for why I do it. I think it probably goes back to me copying Far Side comics as a kid. I did it two ways. I did it on a Macintosh SE by tracing them with a mouse, and I did it with a pencil in a sketchbook. Not to make this like a childish escapism thing about my process, but those are two tools that I think are great and I’ve stuck with them.
NR: What about color?
BJ: Color is something I’ve come so far with. In LA, I’ve hired these CalArts [California Institute of the Arts] grads to do design and animation on Stone Quackers who understand color on a cinematic level, and I’ve tried to take all my idiosyncratic color weirdness and learn from them, and I’ve come out the other side with a different approach. Even the Paper Rad color was very much me reacting to Jessica and Jacob, because they were walking around in neon clothes. I think I made the first move by saying, “We have this color comic, we should color it neon because that’s what you wear.” Now, they probably would have colored it neon, but I was the first one to try to imitate their love for neon clothes and put that in the comics and videos because I wanted the characters to look like them. I was reacting to them, and that’s happening again with the stuff I’m doing with these CalArts kids.
John Pham and I met a while back on Problem Solverz. He was drawing comics and I was doing all that crazy, flash animation, and we mind-melded — and now he’s doing the best comics that anybody is doing, called Epoxy, and he’s doing them all on computer. He’s created brushes that mimic how we would use pencils, and he’s using the Risograph, hacking into it using all this digital technology. The Risograph is a Japanese copying machine that uses spot colors to imitate digital color on a one-to-one ratio, where nothing really gets lost in translation. It’s a lot like silkscreen, but it’s more powerful than silkscreen because the Risograph and Photoshop are talking to each other. So he’s mixing the two worlds. A majority of cartoonists — Chris Ware, Dan Clowes — are still using digital tools to imitate old coloring processes. John has invented a whole new workflow.
Color has typically been just this weird afterthought, and to introduce color into the work in this show would bring up all those issues, because the horrible truth is that cartoonists are stuck with CMYK processed color. So Frank Santoro would cut colors out with scissors and Jordan Crane uses Photoshop to do that same thing, and Gary Panter — Gary’s the best person of all, he’s creating stamps and stamping his comics. Color is just this whole other mess, and it was always secondary to the line drawing.
NR: You mean to say that you’re limited in your color choices?
BJ: You’re totally limited, and it’s at the mercy of all these other decisions, whereas what’s so great about the CalArts kids is they don’t give a shit about that. They’re taught to do watercolor and oil paint from the Disney tradition. CalArts is essentially a training school for Disney, and there’s a tradition of background painting from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and it’s basically just really kickass oil painting. These kids are taught lighting and painting at the same time, so they’re becoming their own directors of photography, like how [Edward] Hopper painted different light in his Cape Cod paintings. Whereas, again, with traditional comics, the Hernandez brothers aren’t thinking about that – they’re typically thinking about swatches of color.
NR: With mixing colors in CMYK, it seems the possibilities might be infinite, certainly expansive.
BJ: Well, you can use a spot color, but CMYK color can’t give you a good green. You can mix photos, but really good comics — the best comics you can think of — they’re using Pantone spot colors. I’m just saying you’re at the mercy of the process, whereas what’s so great about the blank page and a pencil and a nib and some ink is you can create Batman, you can create Superman. I was always coming at comics from things like Bloom County, which is responding to [cartoonist and animator] Winsor McCay and stuff like that. With the line, you can create anything.
NR: Geometry has always been an important elements of your comics and art. Where does that come from?
BJ: About halfway through high school, my mom sat me down on the couch and told me she had some horrible news, and I thought, like, divorce or something — but it was far worse. She said, I’ve been taking witch lessons and I’m a witch now, I’m going to buy a witch store in the middle of your normal suburban town where you play soccer and I’m going to ruin your life. I was in Boston, and in Boston, if you’re not normal, you’re shit. So she opened this witch store, and I was at odds with it. But it worked out for the best, because it turns out I wasn’t normal, and I was always faking it. But the best thing that came from it, other than letting me become weird, was that she had these esoteric mythologies and books on sacred geometry. A lot of my characters and storytelling riff on this New Agey spirituality and sacred geometry. That was the first time I started to experiment with symbols and create a rune-based language. Then I got to college and discovered [artist] Kenneth Anger and met Chris Forgues and found Fort Thunder. And I was like, “I already know all this stuff, guys. I’ll show you how to do a pentagram.” And that quickly turned into the golden mean and the golden ratio, and I was using those shapes in a lot of paintings. It’s this weird world I’ve always loved.
NR: Your earlier sculptures of the ladders and the dogs are three-dimensional works that have the illusion of being flattened — it’s a strange sense of dimensionality. In this show, you’re making literal that back and forth between dimensions: panels that have sprung off the two-dimensional page onto the three-dimensional canvas, and vice-versa. Once again, there’s that neither-one-nor-the-other feeling.
BJ: That’s important because it turns out — and I learned this the hard way by moving to LA and making TV shows — that Mickey Mouse is a circle for a reason. A lot of animators think you can create a character and then just have it be in space and walk around. You can’t. First off, your character should have radial symmetry. It should make sense when you turn it around. In the fifties, they did this whole new style with The Flintstones — you can’t really turn them around, they’re flat. But good classic animation — Miyazaki or Disney — has characters with volumetric awareness. I was always kind of aware of that, but was never literally aware of that, so now I’m hyperaware of that, and I feel like I’m making better design choices. But that was always in the fact that I was creating these dogs that had to have a three-dimensional solution, and it became this great dialogue where then I was modeling things — a drawing of a dog and a sculpture of a dog, or a drawing of a ladder and a sculpture of a ladder. Now I’m at this great place where I’m modeling things that can have … but it’s not even can, it needs to be a beautiful object. It needs to have a beautiful silhouette, and then it needs to have a reason to exist in X and Y space.
NR: What makes a beautiful silhouette?
BJ: Bart Simpson is a great example. The standard answer is it should be the simplest thing ever, to the point where if you took one line off, everything would fall apart.
NR: The simplest thing but also immediately recognizable.
BJ: Yeah, and again, The Simpsons is the best example. If you saw silhouettes of their characters, anybody on the street could identify them. But it’s also a sacred-geometry, special-design thing, which means creating a character that has that kind of economy. And then you need to find the volumetric answer. I’m doing a video game right now where, you know, in a video game you have to find the low-polygon version of, say, a concept for a monster, and now I’m arguing more and more — but in a way that plays off of Disney, because Disney created Mickey Mouse from those limitations — that hey, let’s create great video game characters that have a low geometry, or low polygon count, that are beautiful and let’s have that influence their final look and feel. This dog is a good example of something that works great in 3-D space and 2-D space. And, Mickey Mouse to a certain extent, too, and some of the Pixar stuff.
NR: Isn’t that what you do in the opening to Stone Quackers?
BJ: Hell, yeah. We use that in the intro of the show, but it was basically a science experiment. We wanted to make sure that every shape had a beautiful radial symmetry to it. We drew the characters as they were spinning, and then we realized that it would be a great opening to the show, because it burns those characters and their silhouettes, the shapes and geometry, into your mind.
NR: There’s an episode of The Simpsons where Homer becomes three-dimensional, and it’s startling because you know what he looks like but –
BJ: Here, I’ll say it. The Simpsons [characters] don’t translate into a 3-D space. Matt [Groening] made the best animation. He was very aware of comics like Nancy and he’s using a language that was kind of invented by animators at Disney, and he was creating works that work really well in animation too, like Homer’s round stomach and the symmetry of using balls and those kinds of shapes. But there are a lot of inconsistencies — you really see it with Bart’s upper lip. Sometimes it’s disappointing, but he fixes it in Futurama. They 3-D-model the spaceship, and Bender is a beautiful silhouette. The Simpsons was created by a bunch of people in a pressure cooker. It’s a miracle — there’s no way I can critique it. But it’s interesting to note the inconsistencies, and what I’m now doing on a daily basis is finding shapes and designs that are iconic, that have a good 2-D and 3-D silhouette sensibility.
NR: You’ve mentioned Miyazaki and Disney a few times. Is their animation foundational for you?
BJ: Functionally, in America you had Disney, and then there was World War II, which destroyed the world and also things like film industry in Japan, and the way they built it back up was through animation. They started to look at Mickey Mouse, and they started to make animation. Meanwhile, back in the States, Disney fucks up, stops doing good things in the fifties. In the sixties, in Japan, you have Miyazaki. In the US, you have Robert Crumb, who’s like, “Hey, remember old comics? They’re really weird and funny and fucked up and I smoke weed and I’m going to do that.” So you have anime being born in Japan [and] underground comix being born in the US. And then the best thing ever happens — Mœbius. Anime starts to look at Mœbius, and Mœbius looks at R. Crumb. Johnny Negron did one drawing where he has R. Crumb, Mœbius, and Miyazaki characters altogether. It’s not talked about enough, that connection. But it’s important. That’s where contemporary animation language comes from — Mœbius, Robert Crumb, Miyazaki.
Out of that, obviously, you get Matt Groening, but at the same time Gary Panter is evolving within there. And so you have these secondary people who are further shaping this global or cosmic unconscious art style. Now we’re living at the most enlightened point, where you have Johnny Negron, a kid, seeing these images on Tumblr. Matt, me, Gary — we didn’t have the ability to go on Tumblr and have a perfectly curated experience, but Johnny has access to the best stuff. There’s a whole body of work, like Hanna Barbera and Mary Blair, that for a long time didn’t feel relevant or exciting. But now we’re back in a place where we can push the language for that work.
NR: Why do you think we’re at the moment where all of that has become relevant again?
BJ: The Internet has let it happen. I really think it’s because of Tumblr. The wires are getting uncrossed. The kids are watching Adventure Time now instead of crappy G.I. Joe, no offense. G.I. Joe was like Stan Lee —diluted Spiderman — it might have been great with Jack Kirby, but when it got to Saturday morning cartoons it had been compromised, because it lost its original source.
NR: Do you mean that shows like Adventure Time were created because imagery from the sixties and seventies has become more readily available through sites like Tumblr?
BJ: Contemporary animation like Adventure Time is a complete celebration/homage/furthering of the language that Miyazaki, Crumb, Mœbius, and Disney created.
If you watch that new Werner Herzog documentary Lo and Behold (2016), he interviews one of the three guys who invented the Internet, who says, “The Internet’s all wrong. A hyperlink isn’t a link. You don’t put Nike.com and click on it and it takes you to Nike, I never meant for that to happen.” A hyperlink was excerpting a stanza from Shakespeare, and when you would click on it, you would go to that part of the play. That’s all that hyperlinks were meant to do.
Now, I don’t really care about that, but it shows you that the system of organizing information on the Internet is the Internet. And the fact that we have URLs that are links controls your whole reality, so much so that when you look at how we’re organizing data into platforms like Instagram – I mean, the fact that people are on Instagram all day and not the Internet just shows that how you’re linking to and presenting data is incredibly important. Tumblr was a platform that sped up kids’ understanding what good art was. Now, there are plenty of dolphin GIFs that are shit, but also in three minutes, Johnny Negron — sorry to keep using him as an example — could see every good thing ever made, whereas Chris Forgues and I were lucky to get half of that in our first twenty-four years of life. The Internet is decentralized, but Tumblr is a black hole of curation and appropriation and aggregation. It figured out art. It didn’t figure out the stock market or pornography.
NR: Is it good art if you can take something away from it?
BJ: I love that we’re talking about this. It’s good art because being on Tumblr requires active participation, and you have to almost be good at what you’re doing. You can’t go onto Tumblr and promote shit — it won’t get anywhere. Look, I don’t believe in the democratization of content creation. I’m just saying that Tumblr let everybody know that Miyazaki was the best animator and that Mœbius made concept art for Dune that nobody saw. From those two things, you can get great-looking cartoons now. It’s not as clear-cut as I’m making it sound, and not as binary, but it’s a big cultural moment. It’s like seeing everything the two coolest kids in high school are putting up in their lockers, but instead of just two kids, Tumblr is thousands of those kids. And then those kids are informing each other. So you have all the cool kids helping each other create a beautiful stream of content.
NR: Is Tumblr like a flat file?
BJ: Totally. Not to get too nerdy, but the beauty of Tumblr isn’t liking something, but re-blogging it. That’s such a crazy idea. On Instagram, you can’t repost someone’s picture with one click. But it was that little sharing tool that made it like trading zines. A good Tumblr post will go viral. A good zine used to go viral. You can pass zines around and they’re easy to duplicate, and re-blogging on Tumblr was like giving someone a zine or an image and they put it in their collection, and two other people see it there and they recontextualize it, reaggregate it. Zines were always great at aggregating, and trading images that way was free. The big thing with Paper Radio was that it was free. I wanted the most people to get it, and I thought we would get customers and in the long run they would pay us. And Chris said no, it’s like radio, it’s like broadcasting ideas for free. Tumblr is the ultimate example of the free giving-away of things.