New York CityHigh Noon Gallery
Mary Jones: Les Problémes Du Confort
March 16 – April 23, 2023
Mary Jones’s newest paintings perpetuate the pas de deux she has previously choreographed between collaged and readymade photographic sources and bravura painterly passages. Her process typically integrates the two via a wide array of technical interventions, activating these elements into a series of staccato movements that refer to the aleatory nature of the “cut-up” but also to genealogies of expressionist painting. For her third exhibition at High Noon, she’s grouped the newest series of works in this mode under the heading Les Problémes du Confort. With this series she has drawn her photographic source material from a French interior design publication, whose pages include references to Ancien Régime décor but also its subsequent iterations as mere design tropes in 1960’s bricolage. Such a source points to a key conceptual conceit of the artist in this series, namely the reference (as a painter’s scaffold) to generational decline and renewal of historic interior designs and the entropic attenuation of their original symbolic import. These “labyrinths of symbolism” as the artist describes them, can be seen as familiarly domestic yet simultaneously, in her words “the topos of dreams.” The habitation of symbolist poetics reminds one of Pierre Reverdy’s epic poem-novella Haunted House (1930) in which the poet similarly sets up the architecture of an old manoir as an extended allegory of a haunted subconscious. A painter who comes to mind is Sigmar Polke whose 2014 MoMA retrospective, tellingly entitled Alibis, was replete with paintings inscribed within the ruins of photographic appropriations that underscored that artist’s variable painterly interventions. Like Polke, Jones seems painfully aware of the impossibility of going on with the project of painting as “vitalist projection,” (as Isabelle Graw has termed it), and yet is bound and determined to see that project through. In a sense, she inhabits the spaces that she’s built in these assembled compositions as a ghost in her own machine. After all, one important implication of the maintenance of an alibi depends upon one not being in a certain place at a certain time. This sense of remove in Jones’s work allows for a whole panoply of painterly “crimes” to be committed in the name of the “vitalist projection.” Consider the painting Iconic Memories (2023) for instance. Here a faux neo-classical interior (inkjet-printed onto the canvas) is furnished with what looks like Napoleonic empire–style chairs along with ersatz busts from antiquity. Across this scenario the artist has cast a huge swath of black oil paint, suspended in the upper foreground, as if a careless ink spill on a pretentious “coffee table” book. Counterpoised with this gesture, in the lower foreground is a pink painterly passage that is conditioned by its apparent collage derivation. I say apparent because one aspect of this and other paintings in the show (a vitally playful one) is how Jones enacts a constant game with the viewer of process hide and seek. One loses one’s bearings in seeking to be sure if a passage is a photo-collaged section of a previously painted surface, a photo collage that’s been altered to seem that way, or an actual painted surface. The ensemble effect reinvents painting as active looking. One becomes an “emancipated spectator” in the process. A more chromatically complex work is Bedposts and Bygones (2023), in which the artist’s painterly interventions almost overtake her photographic ones. A primary triad of red, yellow and blue helps to ballast its buoyant vertical composition, while tertiary greens and oranges stretch one’s attention between the lower left and upper right of the painting. Those photo- collage elements that do stand out are what looks like an Indonesian wall sculpture opposed to a hat rack hung with an array of French provincial straw hats. This combination conjures the leisure of bourgeois art collecting as well as vacation hours spent “catching rays.” In a wonderfully comic turn, Jones graphically translates the latter into grey and chartreuse rays in the upper right of the painting. Such a passage is reminiscent of the California cubism of David Hockney but also the “Miracle” drawings of Ed Ruscha and shows how Jones can generously make room for such art-historic zeitgeists. The painting is hilariously ambitious in its ludic overthrow of painterly decorum at the expense of moribund tradition, as the artist not only cuts-up paint and imagery but also the history of painting itself. In L'Atelier Phoenix (2022) Jones lets her gestural capacity fly. The semiotic index of the photo-sources here are sublimated as linear scaffolding to a center-dominant squeegee passage in black and white oil paint. This aspiring arc of paint is topped by a graphic arrow in triangle diagram. Once again, the artist doesn’t let one get away with mere painterly jouissance without putting a finer interpretive point on it. While the main thrust of this gesture pulls the viewer dynamically up, a smaller, less demonstrative section of the work on its lower right appears to be the artist tentatively testing out colors. The improvisatory nature of this section demonstrates how Jones can keep two contradictory notions of gestural abstraction suspended within her own haunted consciousness. With this show Jones has refined her paradoxical struggle between the photographic index and the painterly hand to a greater extent than ever before, and so it represents a major expressive leap in her work. It’s bracing to encounter an artist whose inherent skepticism of the medium constitutes an architecture of new belief.