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The Performance of a Lifetime

Kim Jones: A Retrospective runs through December 17 at the UB Art Gallery on the North Campus.

Mudman—Kim Jones’ alterego—merges human body as sculpture at the Center for the Arts Gallery at the University at Buffalo in his first retrospective. Through collected drawings, paintings, sculpture and performance pieces, this alterego explodes violently in a whirlwind; shamanism blends with Satanism, fairytales with horror stories. His work, expanding over the two floors in the Lightwell, the first and second floors, is both tantalizing and repulsive.

A pair of boots along with a stitched lattice of branches bound with tape and other various materials together create the first impression of Jones’ primordial Mudman costume. All that is missing is the physical performer, Jones’ himself, to animate the persona. Jones, a contemporary with Vito Acconci, Chris Burden and Bruce Nauman, performs nude and covered in mud with a nylon stocking over his head, while toting the awkward lattice structure. He engages different people both within and outside the gallery, as he explained in an interview with Stephen Maine of the Brooklyn Rail:

“Some would freak out if my face is covered with panty hose…Others asked me all kinds of questions, most commonly, are you getting paid for this, or are you advertising something? Is this a political act? And so on. One person, when I was doing another piece later in New York, asked me if I wanted to go to a party with her. In other words, I would make up stuff according to different situations.”

The persona redefines Jones’ physical presence. The pack of branches is a portable structure that serves as both a defense mechanism but also restricting and isolating in its awkward nature and immobility, as he explains in the same interview:

“For one thing, because I’m not a large man, it makes me larger. And it makes me scarier because I’m more threatening looking with all the sticks and mud and sometimes s*** attached and put on my body. But also it kind of cripples me in a certain way; for one thing, I can’t see very well since my face is covered with panty hose and I can’t move swiftly because I have this heavy and awkward structure on me…Yes, I’m interested in that relationship (between being strong and vulnerable at the same time) as a contradiction.”

Mudman’s presence also pervades through his drawings and paintings. The exhibition’s first-floor space presents two-dimensional works that are the metaphysical backdrop to the alterego. Figures are mutated by webs of phallic stick forms. The images draw strength from their raw merging of the grotesque with the human form; carcasses, insects, caterpillars, rat tails combine with brains hearts, intestines, testicles, vulva. The Buffalo News’ Richard Huntington parallelled these works with UB’s late professor and illustrator Alan Cober. Indeed, the forms are graphic, like Cober’s illustration.

In one series, Jones’ aggressive manipulation of form extends to Playmate models from a nude magazine. Miss January through Miss December, each voluptuous body’s face is rendered repulsive.

In the brightly white, 35-foot walls of the Lightwell, there is an eerie, calm silence created by the intense initial drawings. Here, in the eye of the storm, is a graphite drawing that began on a small piece of paper has bled onto the rest of three walls. Entitled “War Drawings,” this series began when Jones was, as a child, immobilized by a polio-like illness. The drawing, an elaborate Atari-game-style depiction of war, is an aerial view of simple Xs and dots in constant battle as Jones’ continually reworks the graphite. Eraser marks are remnants of battles won and lost. The drawings are simple maps with Jones as the God-like city planner, documenting the direction of this imaginary war. Simple graphite lines dictate bodies of water, land and cities. Simple lines also construct elaborate and intricate space—lines become walls, which evolve into a gridded labyrinth. The viewer is disconnected and detached from the violence, the graphite city grids reminiscent of looking through Louis Pasteur’s microscopes at bacteria cells.

On the second floor of the gallery, curious forms on the floor are aligned with plastic toy rats. Tricycles, overcome by twigs, foam, tape and other materials are attached to the wall. His drawings come alive, rolling out of his grotesque imaginary landscape of his warped drawings and into the room. The pathways of the vehicles are marked by heavy lines running round and round the room.

Hidden also on the second floor in a pitch black darkness, contrasting the bright Lightwell, a video projection of a performance piece becomes the pinnacle of one of his most destructive and almost maniacal work. The video has no sound, echoing the eerie silence of the Lightwell. The video is from 1976 and shows Jones’ dawning Mudman gear—first the mud, and then the headdress with the wood lattice. The performance culminates in pouring lighter fluid on three rats in a cage and lighting them on fire.

This is the only performance piece that Jones openly admits is directly related to his war experiences as a Marine in Vietnam. One reason may be in the distinction he draws between himself and Joseph Beuy in his interview with the Brooklyn Rail’s Stephen Maine:

Maine: Are the performances therapeutic, cathartic, for you or for the audience?

Jones: I have no idea about the audience. When I do a piece it’s very exhausting. Right before I do it I’m almost always thinking, why the f*** am I doing this again? Because it is so exhausting. It may be therapeutic to the audience but I don’t think it’s therapeutic for me, and I have no intention of my work being a kind of therapy for me or anyone else.

Maine: So Joseph Beuy’s idea of curing social ills doesn’t interest you.

Jones: No! I just try to be as real as I possibly can.”

Jones maybe closer to Beuy’s performative pieces than he thinks. His work incorporates the audience as the essential core; the viewer becomes an active medium. His work continually challenges perception, creating an intense active engagement that resonates soundly throughout his retrospective.

Kim Jones: A Retrospective is open until December 17 at the UB Art Gallery on the North Campus. The retrospective was organized by Sandra Firmin and the UB Art Galleries and Julie Joyce and the Luckman Fine Arts Complex, California State University, Los Angeles, and will travel to several galleries afterwards.

Design Matters is presented in association with the UB School of Architecture and Planning and supported by a fellowship endowed by Polis Realty.