“There is a hint of lurking menace or dysfunction just somewhere off the canvas, hidden from the view of these idyllic and rhythmic façades of suburbia.”
You might need to only take in a painting or two from the late Brian Jones’ oeuvre to realize that this was one London artist not just coming up in the footsteps of our acclaimed Jack Chambers, but a painter approaching his status as a distinguished original stylist. Also like Chambers the Chatham born, Beal Art-trained artist died much too young in 2008. Jones would have turned 65 this year: a graceful if brief survey of his work from the early ’70s through the late ’90s, Neighbours, at Michael Gibson Gallery is a must-see reminder and celebration of Jones’ accomplished career.
Post-Beal Art training, Jones spent a few years under the tutelage of Chambers and had an early influence from his “perceptual realism” style and his mastery of the play of light. But by his mid-twenties, Jones was evolving his own compositional technique and a subject focus on his childhood memories in the suburbs of Chatham. Working from old family album snapshots, and perhaps with inspiration from Chambers’ intimate investigation of everyday family life scenes, Jones found his “Neighbours” style, taken from the title of an early ’70s painting. “In my work I hope to achieve a certain awareness of time, and a sense of something mystical without being gimmicky or surrealistic, but just working with colour and tone, remaining ‘pure’ or true to reality as it is,” Jones wrote in an artist’s statement in 1975. “I want to make the viewer aware of the passing of time (our parents’ lives, our lives, our children’s lives) rather than something nostalgic or sentimental . . . I’m just trying, with as little style or invention as possible, to create something special in the everyday.”
And in paintings like Raking Leaves, Neighbours Shovelling Snow and Patio Sweepers on display here, creating something special in the everyday is just what he did. Jones’ rich and exacting compositional lines and forms are combined with his trademark whimsical distorted bodies engaged in a quotidian rhythm and flow, each seemingly in synch in a strange suburban dance or choreography.
But in Walking the Dog it’s what’s not seen that is equally important. (As an old aesthetics professor once cautioned, damn the artist’s statement and intentions, as there’s often more going on than the artist is admitting or perhaps aware of in their own work.) As with other paintings in his Neighbours style, there is a hint of lurking menace or dysfunction just somewhere off the canvas, hidden from the view of these idyllic and rhythmic façades of suburbia: as if the viewer is in the early scenes of the film Pleasantville or Lynch’s Blue Velvet, where there is an ominous event or disturbance not yet fully articulated by the artist. It’s a bit of a weird masterpiece, starting with Jones’ compositional frame. Our view is only of the walker’s leg and rear of the dog, the bodies implied in the shadows. There’s obsession here that Jones details in the overly manicured lawn, the immaculate concrete sidewalk, being cut by the tidy crease of the pant, a red sock, and a limp leash. The more you look, you realize those shadows don’t quite add up. A friend wryly suggests this painting could be a still from a vintage NFB cartoon of an overly neurotic subject who likes to walk the dog a lot – with a faithful pup who doesn’t mind the neuroses following in step – and musical accompaniment being the old standby Yellow Bird by Lawrence Welk. While composition may be Jones’ strong suit, it’s his playful tone, prompting the viewer to make their own interpretations that really brings these scenes to life.
One curious element in Jones’ stylistic evolution was his discovery of – if not a kind of latent synchronicity with – British painter Stanley Spencer’s work. Spencer had a similar penchant for streamlined shapes and stylized figures, though the influence isn’t so clear as Jones had already realized his Neighbours style before encountering Spencer’s body of work.
“Brian was a chameleon, who could put on a different hat every day and feel comfortable in it,” Jones’ wife Susanne Tausig
Jones wrote after his death. She suggests that, as a voracious reader and life-long student, influences from not just Spencer but Modigliani and Francis Bacon informed Jones’ figures with misshapen faces and elements of the grotesque. “By being a sponge, of sorts, Brian managed to develop a style all his own, nostalgic and humorous, but often with a streak of something dark and threatening. Take, for example, the painting Every Night, Grandmother Checked the Baby . . . with dripping wax candle in hand, this seemingly benign subject is laced with tones of impending danger.” She also notes, tellingly, that he was fond of playing tricks and pranks - a trait that certainly emerges in the work as well.
The exhibition will also feature screenings of Robert Pegg’s 1980 documentary Windows on Suburbia: The Art of Brian Jones on Saturday June 27. This 37 minute doc is an excellent window on the artist hitting his stride and provides plenty of insights into his imaginative processes. Jones discusses Chambers’ influence on his use of colour, his working methods and his hobby collecting clockwork tin toys. “Somebody just asked me what connection my tin toys collection has to do with my Neighbours style,” Jones says here. “I guess they do. They’re kind of bizarre and strange and simplified forms like naïve painting, or primitive art, which is similar to the Neighbours style.” The doc also features many early works outside of his Neighbours style: studies of local architecture, water reflection studies of the Thames by Harris Park, David Hockney-like swimmers in pools and a mystical Chambers-like painting of an empty parking lot overlooking the former downtown Eatons store.
Neighbours brings together works from private collections, Museum London and McIntosh Gallery; as some of these paintings have not seen public display in 25 years, it’s a rare chance to get a glimpse into the fertile genius of Brian Jones. Kudos to Michael Gibson and curator Jennie Kraehling for bringing together a fine overview and reminder of one of our lost local masters.
Neighbours at Michael Gibson Gallery until July 4
Windows on Suburbia: The Art of Brian Jones screens at 3 p.m. and 4 p.m., Saturday June 27
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