RE WORK: THE ART
OF HOWARD JONES
INTRODUCTION TO EXHIBIT
BY RUSTY FREEMAN
Director of Visual Arts
Cedarhurst Center for the Arts
OCTOBER 23- DECEMBER 31, 2016
“The tool makes the teacher.” --Damián Ortega
Howard Jones by adroit aesthetic means performs alchemy transforming everyday tools and objects into thought-provoking works of art. Wit and humor exult in Jones’ reinventions. Jones practices a high level of craftsmanship on the objects he reshapes and in his quirky juxtapositions of functions, new insight occurs with common objects we thought we knew so well.
In the artist’s own words: “For the last few years I have been very interested in everyday objects and tools, trying to create unexpected new uses for them in keeping with, but enlarging upon, their original purpose. I am as interested in non sequiturs that make one rethink something (or someone) they may have taken for granted.”
I think there is more to these works of art than first meets the eye. To me, they feel more than mere one-liners. A paint brush appended to a crutch is nigh unexplainable. What does either add to the other? A crutch is for walking, a motion aid. A paint brush applies decoration or protection. Together, they are unspeakable in their newly formed “function.” Jones’ keen and devilish insights may be that they won’t ever add up; they remain undecidable. Might not that be the point? We must ponder the juxtaposition that some things cannot, will not add up to a balanced equation. Yet, our thinking need not end with this puzzle.
Marcel Duchamp’s “Ready-made” of 1913, a wooden stool and bicycle wheel, needs no interpretation. Neither does Howard Jones. Hieronymus Bosch in the 15th century excelled at juxtapositions that still have not been reconciled. The ability to create mystery with art should not be underestimated. The Dadaist and Surrealist Max Ernst noted that, “the strangest poetic sparks by bringing together two seemingly unrelated elements on a plane unrelated to both.”
Like the Dadaists of the first decade of the 20th century, Jones’ objects challenge convention with their puzzling combinations. The conventions these works challenge is the value and humble function of the common tool in the digital age of information. As a telling sign, few of these works have anything to do with electricity. They are powered only by human muscle and brain.
I like to think of these works as protests against the “rationality and convention” of the small-screen, hand-held computerized revolution that has overtaken the world where there is an app for everything including turning on home lights or driving a car. Most of Jones’ mysteries either are powered by a hand or foot, or have some direct connection to nature. Jean Arp said, “Dada is for Nature and against Art. Dada stands for unlimited meaning and limited means.” Dada and Surrealism fought the “rational” systems that led to war with their art that presented the other side of rationality in surprising ways.
Where historical Dada pursued a “total rejection of the hypocrisy and falseness of established values, of which culture was seen as symptomatic,” I obviously don’t think the art of Jones falls into this nihilism. Which is not to say that his works don’t offer a critique of the status quo of our digital age and suggest a creative merging of human-powered tools and Nature. Jones pursues portraits of whimsical absurdity coupled with aesthetic insight. I see a joy of making. A love of tools. I see thoughtful considerations in the juxtaposition of each object’s social value; a nuanced understanding of function and purpose and potential beyond expectations. These mixed functions cannot by necessity go together, yet Jones’ objects manage to convey something of our collective aspirations; that we are multi-functional, multi-purposed, multi-dimensional.
To sketch a larger framework around the art of Howard Jones, I introduce the ideas of James Kern Feibleman from “The Philosophy of Tools” 1967.
Humankind transforms our environment with tools and languages.
Tools, Feibleman thinks, are underestimated. He expands the definition of tools to include everything from a bulldozer, to a violin, all art, books, computers, a house, a street, and more.
Tools serve all our needs, even the immaterial, the intangible realm of ideas, aspirations, and goals. Tools have our social values embedded in them. The arts are the best examples of tools embedded with social values and aspirations. Yet, any tool, no matter how common or humble has these features as it has the power to reshape our environment to further our bidding, our desires.
“Tools are deeply imbedded into the cultural life of humankind. We cannot answer questions about ourselves without taking tools into our account.” Culture is a close-knit organization of people and artifacts. We depend on tools for every one of our activities. Every human ambition depends upon tools. Every material tool was first an immaterial idea. The transmission of ideas depends on physical tools. Social values become incorporated into tools. We are conditioned by our tools. Tools make the person.
Feibleman considered technology a subdivision of ethics. Ethics asks what should a person feel, think, and do, and to answer that we must understand how we use tools to alter our environment. Tools therefore play a role in ethical decisions.
To illustrate how tools play this ethical role consider how we need air, food, water, clothing and shelter and how the tools we use to obtain them have ethical implications. The tools we create create our morals. The values carried by tools are those toward which we aspire.
Our social values speak through our tools. Feibleman established broad structural contexts for understanding the power and social values of tools, all of which has interpretive implications for the artifacts made by Howard Jones. Feibleman has shown just how powerfully and socially-connected to humankind that tools can be. Tools form a part of our cultural identity.
These ideas by Feibleman illustrate further the power and social value of the Jonesian Toolbox, his art reflects who we are: absurd, witty, multi-functional (our strongest attribute?), and most of all, a witty celebration of mystery.
For me, the art of Howard Jones works at a sub-conscious level where different kinds of meaning function, different from the visual pleasures of humor and superior craftsmanship. At this under-the-radar level, to use everyday tools to make art is still a valid challenge to tradition of fine art media such as oil paint or marble or bronze. Historical Dada and Surrealism first established this challenge to media and it still carries today the scent of its original subversion. A further satisfaction for me is that in the fine art arena into which these artworks may be seen they go just a bit against the grain. And I enjoy that Feibleman has shown that tools are not inert things to used and put away, but are dynamic cultural artifacts forming an essential part of our collective identities. Jones’ practice is a critique (an examination of a thing to determine its nature) founded in love and admiration for the functional and aesthetic values he sees in his chosen artifacts. Howard Jones’ gift is transforming his inspirations into mysteries that defy categorization and allow endless speculation and enjoyment.