It’s the teeth that get you. In Benjamin Jones’ drawings on paper, almost every figure shows its teeth, with every tooth articulated. These small pieces are made with graceful lines but disturbing ferocity. The smiles are false; the grin is also a terrifying snarl. The figures are cute and endearing, soft like a teddy bear or rabbit or cat. Many have small, round animal ears atop their heads, but their cuteness is a façade. They’re ready to sink their sharp incisors into you if you come too close.
After an all-too-long hiatus — Jones was caring for his ill mother and had health issues of his own — the artist returns with two Atlanta exhibitions. Speaking (through February 15 at MOCA GA) is a retrospective curated by his longtime champion, the art dealer Barbara Archer. Salt Island (through January 25 at Whitespace) features new work. They bring this much-loved artist’s work to town for the first time in 11 years. It’s an exhilarating comeback.
Both shows feature primarily works on paper: pencil drawings, some with added color or ink and collage but also sketchbooks, plus a few small but exquisite sculptures. We see mostly figures and faces, alone or in groups, drawn with a brutalist elegance that recalls a primitive artist, though Jones is a trained artist with a B.F.A. from the University of West Georgia.
Jones’ drawings are comparable to Picasso’s in their directness of line and approach to figuration. The faces of many of Jones’ figures are surrounded with a kind of halo of petals in the way Picasso often drew women, particularly wife Françoise Gilot. Jones’ faces are mask-like, flattened and imply the presence of something behind them. Jones depicts every tooth in the mouths attached to those faces. In Picasso’s Guernica (1937), the figures show their teeth as they cry out in pain and despair and death. Jones’ work evokes a similar sense of extreme visceral emotion.
The artist has an intimate relationship with the figures he so lovingly creates that comes from years of drawing in his sketchbook journals, some of which are seen at MOCA GA. There is a vitrine in Speaking chock-full of Jones’ cherished childhood toys, a kind of gift from the artist to the viewer. By presenting this massive group of toys, Jones reveals himself, putting the vulnerability of his childhood on a pedestal. The toy figurines morph into the artwork he has made for the past four decades.
Jones knows and acknowledges his inspirations. Rabbits (Homage to Dubuffet) is a small papier-mâché sculpture of two bunnies holding each other in a fearful embrace. Their eyes are collaged like a ransom note; their noses and mouths attached to an outlined white form. A dark blue egg, perhaps ready to hatch, sits before them. We see both love and dread, a common Jones’ theme, intensely illuminated here. Like French painter/sculptor Jean Dubuffet (1901–1985), Jones’ white sculpture is drawn like a three-dimensional painting with black lines on top to articulate the form. Dubuffet coined the phrase art brut to champion art outside the academic tradition. By referring to Dubuffet in his title, Jones acknowledges his alignment with the art brut movement.
Jones collects images within his own work. His drawings often are collaged together on large sheets of white paper, with each complex figure or face or animal drawn in its own way. This grouping of drawings catalogs the range of his characters, all of whom live in the same universe for him.
The series Cat Porn (with versions at Whitespace and MOCA GA) reflects the purity and directness of Jones’ drawings, here made in black marker on popcorn bags. The red-striped vertical lines and the word “popcorn” recall Jean-Michel Basquiat’s use of everyday detritus. Jones’ piece is a kind of graffiti, not on a wall but on paper repurposed for its nostalgic reference to childhood trips to the movies paired with the graphic beauty of the red lines and text. Jones transforms these discarded bits of paper into a haunting poem to his beloved cats.
Both exhibitions include the same extremely informative video of the artist in dialogue with the viewer, speaking about his life. Even though Jones talks about never being in a love relationship, there is an empathetic grasp of human interaction at the heart of his work. When he moved to Tybee Island — which he refers to as a place for broken toys like himself — he began working as a grocery-store checkout clerk. He did this, he says, because he wanted to be part of the community and could meet everyone on the island there.
For him, it was like being onstage for several hours each day in a kind of performance. Jones, the artist, wants to be with people and connect but not too closely, just like the stuffed toys in his art. It’s this tension between Jones’ demons and his compassion that makes his work so moving.