Art & Australia

emerging artists

Jonathan Jones

As Sydney artist Jonathan Jones describes it, his artistic practice - which is much involved with the meaningful installation and articulation of light - is about 'looking at big issues in a quiet way'. Rejecting noisy, attention-seeking neon - the focus of two recent installations at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney: Janet Burchill and Jennifer McCamley's 'Neon' and Danish artist Jeppe Hein's Neonwall - Jones's medium of choice is pervasive but unassuming fluorescence. What radicalises Jones's adoption of fluorescent fixtures, staged some fifty years after Dan Flavin's original gesture, is its transition to a local context and its participation in debates about appropriation and Indigenous representation.

To stand in the incandescent glow of Jonathan Jones's fluorescent installation Blue poles, 2004, is to be caught in a ricocheting beam of influence and association. From Flavin, our thoughts turn to the work which shares its title - a painting which signalled the Whitlam government's progressive stance and, more controversially, its downfall. In the spring of 1973, a short distance from the source of the Pollock-poles furore, the Aboriginal Tent Embassy was entering its twentieth month, camped outside Canberra's Government House. The coincidence of Pollock's Blue poles, 1952, of the tent embassy, and the Papunya arts movement is explored by one of Jones's cited influences, the artist Gordon Bennett, in whose work the figure of 'Jack the Dripper' looms large and mythic. Jones, like Bennett, finds in appropriation a means of empowerment - a challenge to the representation of indigeneity as 'other'.

Jones is stimulated by this association and points as well to the connection between his light installations and Tony Tuckson's White lines (vertical) on ultramarine, c. 1972-73, a work inspired by Tuckson's deepening involvement with Aboriginal art, and his trips in 1958 and 1959 to Melville Island and Yirrakala. On Melville Island, Tuckson acquired a set of magnificently painted and carved grave posts for the collection of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, and it is these ceremonial objects that the jabbing vertical brushstrokes of White lines recall. Jones, who works as Coordinator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Programs at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, also draws deeply from the patterns and practices of his Indigenous predecessors.

The clutch of fluorescent tubes in Blue poles can be read as a form of rrark - the crosshatching whose shimmering effect reveals the presence of the sacred. For the installation White lines, 2005, at Gallery Barry Keldoulis, Sydney, an entire wall of fluorescent tubes glowed in a geometry derived from the patterns of the Kamilaroi/Wiradjuri - carvings on wooden objects, weapons and the designs of possum-skin coats. On the opposite side of the gallery space, a series of meticulously layered black graphite drawings, took on the crystalline patina of animal skin.

It was a different kind of embedded blueprint that informed Jones's installation for the 2003 Primavera exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney. 68 Fletcher, Bondi, 20:20, 8.6.03, 2003, traces the nocturnal lightscape of Sydney's Bondi Beach. The austere frieze of domestic light bulbs corresponds to light sources in the beach suburb, and the work's suspension on vertical extension cords evokes again the white lines of Tuckson. Electric light, the essential material for the construction of cities, resonates as both an icon of urbanisation and of mundane familiarity. To this Jones adds his own personal associations: light's essential ambivalence - being neither physical nor static - suggests the quality of memory and of spirit; that which has physically withdrawn from us but continues to light our way.

The accumulation of light is, in Jones's idiom, an attempt to map the network of relations between communities and individuals. Independent light sources come together to create a larger body of illumination, whose interlocking nature - we cannot tell where light begins and where it ends - signals the artist's interest in areas of commonality and connection, in overlap and symbiotic flow. It is a fascination Jones locates in his discovery of accounts of the Cadigal people night fishing, as recorded by early colonists observing from the shores of Port Jackson. The account of Watkin Tench describes with some poetry a constellation of iridescent lights reflected on the water: the Cadigal, with fires lit on a mud base within their nowey (canoes), fishing and cooking the night's catch.
As Jones explains:

These lines of reflection between two different cultures offered a moment - a moment to consider their relationship and retrospectively a moment in time when Aboriginality was acknowledged. The line of reflected light can be seen as the line connecting the two cultures.

Jonathan Jones's lines of light signify not the linearity of Western historicism but illuminate instead spaces of exchange, symbiosis and optimism.

Jonathan Jones is represented by Gallery Barry Keldoulis, Sydney.

Katrina Schwarz
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