Art

An Outsider Artist Channels His Demons Into Uniquely Funny and Dark Compositions

On display at the Museum of Contemporary Art Georgia, works of Benjamin Jones project deep sorrow as well as an unvanquished ray of optimism.

Benjamin Jones, “Isolating the Disease” from the Isolation Series (2003), graphite and colored pencil on paper, 18 x 23.5 in. (all images by the author for Hyperallergic)

ATLANTA — I think of the artist Benjamin Jones as a kind of art superhero. By day, Jones stocks supermarket shelves near his home on Tybee Island, Georgia, a quiet barrier island off the coast. After work, he ascends into his own universe and creates artwork that is emotional, passionate, funny, and dark. Benjamin Jones Speaking at the Museum of Contemporary Art Georgia (MoCA GA) is an exhaustive retrospective of the artist’s unique career and a much-deserved honor for someone who has flown under the radar for decades.

Born in 1954 in Atlanta, Jones faced many challenges in his life. Called “sissy boy” as a child, he started drawing at a young age and channeled many of his internal (and outside) demons into his artwork. His early drawings often feature a solitary central figure (possibly the artist himself) who seems both put upon by the world and is screaming back at it. The artist’s name, written in an idiosyncratic script, is always prominent in these compositions, as if to declare his existence and his value. The work projects deep sorrow as well as an unvanquished ray of optimism.

Benjamin Jones, “Sissy Boy” (2005), graphite on paper and collage, 14.25 x 10.5 in.

As his work developed over the years, Jones began including other figures, as well as animals and collage elements culled from his voluminous notebook and ephemera collection. Many of these private source materials are on display in the exhibition. Color, used minimally in the early work, later became a central element in his images. The transitions between his early and later works echo a life-stage metamorphosis, and indeed this is redoubled in Jones’s autobiography: After a hiatus of several years, when he tended to his ill mother and dealt with his own health issues, Jones came roaring back to the studio, almost reborn.

Tinged with a sense of humor, Jones’s work of the past decade has become both funnier and darker, as well as more overtly political. The maturity of his vision is matched by the sophistication of his drawing. Lines, both subtle and strong, render figures imbued with deep psychological resonance. His compositions often have an off-center focus, a quality that represents his subjects and self-image. Animals peep in from the edges of the drawings, or drop in unexpectedly from the top, while dramatic scale shifts amplify what I see as the psychological stances underpinning his work: feeling like the outsider looking in and standing tall in a world that makes us feel small.

Installation view of Benjamin Jones: Speaking Retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art Georgia
Benjamin Jones, “Scream” (2000), graphite and colored pencil on paper, 12.5 x 41 in.

Jones is also a collector of vintage toys and action figures, many of which are on display in a large case in the show. And he is an extraordinary correspondent, through that quaint, old-fashioned thing called “mail”; a huge gallery wall is covered, salon-style, with the envelopes and drawings that he has sent to friends, dealers, and collectors all over the world. Each one is a work of art. I dearly wish that I had been his pen pal.

Benjamin Jones is an outsider artist who has come in from the cold.

Benjamin Jones, from left: “Peace in the Valley” (1992), mixed media, 12.25 x 7.5 in.; “Silence = Death” (1993), mixed media, 12.5 x 7.75 in.; “Saint Francis of Assisi” (1999), watercolor and India ink on paper, 11.25 x 7.75 in.; “Devil Parades” (1997), acrylic paint, colored pencil, collage element on paper affixed to canvas, 28 x 29.5 in.; “Pride” from the Sins and Virtues Series (2006), graphite, colored pencil and collage element on paper, 15 x 11.5 in.
Benjamin Jones, “Notes from Journal” (2003-2004 -2005), graphite on paper, 30.25 x 22.75 in.

Benjamin Jones Speaking continues at the Museum of Contemporary Art Georgia (75 Bennett St. NW, Atlanta, Georgia) through February 15. The exhibition was organized by Barbara Archer.

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