“If you linger longer with the paintings, and probe the canvases somewhat deeper, you start to notice something else is happening in this neighbourhood of perfection and order . . . you are both party to and observer of this concealed weirdness.”
When you come off the street and enter into Michael Gibson’s Gallery on Carling Street in downtown London, you are immediately thrown back into another time and place with the current exhibition of Brian Jones’s “Neighbours” paintings. The focus of the exhibition is mainly on the lives of the people of rural suburbia in the ’50s and ’60s. Jones himself grew up in such a neighbourhood and he has drawn upon that experience to inform his paintings.
The warm hues of marine blue and cadmium yellow set a welcoming tone, as the bold, roundish figures, appearing somewhat comic, first greet your eyes. You enter a neighbourhood full of everyday activities: neighbours gleefully raking leaves, or shovelling snow while in friendly conversation with other neighbours, neighbours walking their dog, or strolling with their children, or coming home from work.
The large sized canvases, the high vanishing point in one or two point perspective, and the use of large foreshortened figures in the foreground bring you, the viewer, into the neighbourhood. You are placed in a dialogical position to the artwork, as you question your place in the neighbourhood. You are both the outsider, and at the same time a part of the goings-on; you are like one of the neighbours.
Jones’s fastidious attention to detail is mirrored in the behaviour of the people in the neighbourhood, with their well-groomed exterior appearance and their flawless attire, coats and jackets neatly and firmly buttoned up, pants neatly pressed, and shoes perfectly polished.
The ultra-realism of Jones’s style is also reflected in a neighbourhood landscape with an assiduous valuing of order and near perfection. Every blade of grass is made clearly visible by the hand of the artist, lawns are neatly squared off, the roads, the curbs, the sidewalks are immaculate — no cracks, no stains, no dirt. The people in this suburban neighbourhood would want it that way. Not a weed to be seen in the carpet-like lawn, no bicycle left carelessly in a driveway, nothing is out of place
In his dedicated attention to realism Jones is, in part, emulating Dutch artist Jan Vermeer, whom he much admired. Vermeer is known for his realistic depiction of interior scenes of middle class life. It also shows the influence of Jones’s brief apprenticeship with London artist Jack Chambers, who applied a photo-realistic technique in capturing the everyday of the immediate world around him.
If you linger longer with the paintings, and probe the canvases somewhat deeper, you start to notice something else is happening in this neighbourhood of perfection and order. The expansive bodies of the small headed people project a façade that serves to conceal and distract your gaze from that something that lies beneath. But in Jones’s work you are both party to and observer of this concealed weirdness.
In “Looking Through,” a mother and her son are standing behind a vine-covered trellis, peeking through the lattice work, as if spying on the neighbours. You connect with their gaze, as if they are caught in the act. The mother averts her eyes, the boy stands with a shocked stare, his hands noticeably cupped over his genitals.
In the painting “Neighbours Shovelling Snow,” slightly concealed behind the movements of the puffed up neighbours in the foreground, who suspiciously look back at you as they engage in shovelling the snow, is an isolated youth. He is outside the intensity of the activity on the street. Rather the youth leans casually on the fence, coat undone, his head bent, intent on what he is doing. But what is he doing? He appears to be pulling on a thin string attached to something, but what exactly remains hidden.
In the painting entitled “Man Reading in Garden,” you, as viewer, stand next to a casually but neatly dressed man sitting on a bench, reading a book, seemingly in the peace and quiet of his backyard. But if you look up behind his expansiveness, you see a woman, possibly his wife, running down a path, as if escaping. Her unruly hair and dowdy clothing seem out of place in this land of order and flawlessness.
In the work entitled “Children at Play,” the colours are different; not warm and inviting, but rather cold and muted. One of the children, possibly the brother, is playing with the sharp pointed branches that project from a pile of snow, with ends like antlers. His gaze is somewhat menacing, and aimed at his rather puffed up older sister, who seems determined to plough past him, and past you. The scene seems more hostile than playful.
More probing of the neighbourhood soon brings you to the houses that sit in the background in nearly all the paintings. They are conspicuously sterile in their raw architectural structure, lacking any sign of the character of the occupants. Jones’s rigorous geometric perspective affirms a sense of strict adherence to principle, a theme that is pervasive throughout the exhibition. There is no ornamentation on the exterior, no curtains on windows. Rather windows and doorways are simply darkened or shut. The interiors are firmly closed off as if to fortify against probing eyes. Only in one painting do we glimpse the interior life of the people. In “Coming through the Back Door,” one neighbour appears to be arriving home from a day of work, as he pushes himself through the entrance that barely accommodates him, and enters a sombre uninviting interior. You, as viewer, are placed inside that interior, and you might well be struck by the contrast between the robust, vibrant, neatly groomed man, and the sparse, stark, mutely coloured interior. Outer lives seem at odds with interior worlds.
For those of you who are fortunate enough to own a Brian Jones painting, and maybe live in rural suburbia, as you sit in your living room and probe the depth of the painting, the dialogue between interior and exterior worlds continues, as you attempt to find your place in the neighbourhood.
The Brian Jones exhibition, “Neighbours,” continues until July 4 at Michael Gibson Gallery, 157 Carling Street, London
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