Jilaine Jones at The New York Studio School

Jilaine Jones, She Is Like Her Children (2005), steel and hydrostone,  22″ x 18″ x 15″; courtesy The New York Studio School

A young artist recently told me that working from observation was an antiquated endeavor. Why look at a still-life arrangement when taking a photograph of it would do just as nicely? We have, after all, reached a stage in human development when learning from stuff out there is moot. Getting your hands dirty—what’s the point? High tech has made low tech irrelevant, over and out.

The sculptor Jilaine Jones, whose work is at the New York Studio School, knows otherwise. Mass and volume, proportion and space, line as definition, and the ineluctability of gravity—these are universals best experienced firsthand. Without direct contact, art becomes a tinny imitation of itself—there are 40,000 years or so of world art to prove the point. Ms. Jones’ abstractions are enlivened by careful observation of the human form.

Representation—how a thing looks—is overridden, but not obscured. Asking the model to navigate the studio and strike a pose or two, Ms. Jones found herself rapt by the “body’s expansion and compression” and marveled at its “fall towards … equilibrium.” The resulting pieces make palpable the intensity of Ms. Jones’ scrutiny. She transcribes musculature, movement and, with some measure of reticence, psychological narrative into diagrammatic structures and solid forms.

Ms. Jones works with steel, concrete, rockboard, hydrocal (a plasterlike material) and, almost secretively, brownstone. She’s heir to constructivism, the 20th-century tradition of making sculpture by assembling disparate materials—often industrial—and discrete components. Originated by Picasso and Juan Gonzalez, “drawing in space”—the long-held tag line for constructivism—was carried forward by, among others, David Smith and Sir Anthony Caro. Ms. Jones’ art is an extension of its principles.

All the same, her influences aren’t limited to modernism. Constructivism abjured carving and modeling; Ms. Jones doesn’t. Hydrocal, cement and clay are means for (as catalog essayist Susan Rosenberg has it) “recover[ing] the figure.” Ms. Jones casts cement and kneads lumpish forms with rough-hewn vigor and, in the smaller pieces, something approaching impatience. Within rectilinear armatures, her surprisingly individual clumps perch, stroll, swing and, in She Is Like Her Children(2005), slump with dire portent.

Ms. Jones is at her best when undermining constructivist strictures. She doesn’t quite pull it off in the monumental Wonder World (2006). Notwithstanding its delicate torsion and magisterial demeanor, the piece is basically a generic variant on constructivism and is thwarted by uncooperative or, maybe, too cooperative materials, concrete in particular. You literally feel Ms. Jones doing the heavy lifting; she doesn’t get things off the ground. Gravity defeats her.

Elsewhere and happier, Ms. Jones renders gravity propulsive and buoyant—it becomes pliable and a willing partner. In the jaunty Portrait of a Solitary Walk (2007), she transforms gravity into a forum for comedy. A triangular figure shaped from brownstone and concrete galumphs through a narrow, human-scale architectural framework. It’s confronted by a diminutive, curved steel plank ensconced on a platform. The resulting tête-à-tête is breezy, confrontational, sharp and witty—like Cary Grant talking his way out of a sticky situation.

Theater is an integral component of Ms. Jones’s art. Steel scaffolding is the stage; her gnarled shapes, the protagonists. In the tabletop piece Five Cart Loads (2008), Ms. Jones trades screwball comedy for slapstick, Katherine Hepburn for Harold Lloyd. The action is simplified and stilled, though it retains a certain raucousness. A footlike shape, wedged in a steel brace, is lifted on a platform. A thin and flattened plank, arcing at the same angle, recoils from it with mock drama. It’s the most pictorial piece on view, largely because of the concisely articulated interstices between forms—the space around them is solid and immovable.

She Is Like Her Children, another small sculpture, is markedly different in temper. Concentrated shapes hang onto—or, perhaps, are hung from—a trapezelike armature. The juxtaposition of delicacy and coarseness couldn’t be more obvious or haunting. Wiry lengths of steel are connected with the agility, if not the caprice, of Alexander Calder. Three effigies seem damaged by circumstance; one of them is skewered. Ms. Jones’ surfaces are broad and rough; the piece is fraught with mortality. Imagine Rodin enamored of Play-Doh and playing out an Ibsenesque scenario.

It comes as no surprise that Ms. Jones admires Chinese sarcophagi and, it’s a pretty safe bet, Giacometti’s hallucinatory The Palace at 4:00 A.M(1932). She knows that extending tradition is inextricable from questioning it. Art thrives not on obedience, but in prickly skepticism. Ms. Jones also knows that continuous engagement with the greater world—whether it is a stroll through the woods or, yes, with a nude model—can prevent art from becoming exercises in solipsism. Ms. Jones’s enigmatic, tough and eccentric sculptures are all the stronger for embracing and elaborating on these truths.

(c) 2008 Mario Naves

Originally published in the June 24, 2008 edition of The New York Observer.

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