It is hard to summarize what Ben Jones does. One, overly broad, way to describe his work is that Jones creates genre defying art in a wide range of media, and within his oeuvre there are a lot of nooks and crannies, each of which has its own special ideas and charm. His creative work has been enthusiastically followed by artists since the late 1990s through zines, underground animations, painting and sculpture. I remember seeing something called Paper Rad on the internet around 2003 or 4, and being mesmerized by the bold drawing and color, and, not to be cheesy, but there was also a contagious sense of joy. The imagery remixed pop culture with high cultural stuff like abstract painting. A few years later, towards 2007, the broader popular culture became aware of Jones through his animated television series Problem Solverz, and more recently his new series entitled Stone Quackers. All of the work seems to hover half in the subconscious, placing seemingly real and present iconological formations alongside impossible or wonderful subconscious riffs. In Jones’s work it feels like half the colors are colors, the other half are memories.
Jones has a new exhibition opening Saturday July 11th at Ace Gallery in L.A from 7 to 9pm, and you can see the show until September. This is a major show that is going to transform the gallery. You will be immersed in both high-tech painting and the ladder sculptures we discuss in the interview. His televison show, Stone Quackers, has recently aired new episodes on FXX in the Animation Domination block, and you can see his animations all over the internet and on Hulu.
Hi Ben, thanks for doing this interview.
First I was wondering if you can address happiness. In your work there is a persistent creative vitality: the colors tend towards full-spectrum-morphing that gives the impression of fun, the stories are playful and at the same time I feel like I’m experiencing a flashback to specific memories. Are you happy, or at least happy about something, when you’re working?
This makes me think of the Ken Burns Roosevelt documentary. The way Teddy, FDR, and Eleanor are portrayed, it seems like they are normal troubled people facing great adversity, and sickness, and strife within their families, and public turmoil, and stress, and war and death, and their general approach to these challenges is to say fuck it and just go forward. They faced big problems, and moved beyond beside or through them fearlessly. The modern 90’s idea of happiness is for b.r.a.t.s.. I believe in living, with passion and inspiration and celebration, like a cyber caveman. That said when you meet me, I seem aloof, cold, mean, weird, not happy. But I am so happy when I work with Diane Martell or change the world with Paper Rad. My happiness is expressed via the hard work. Not through emotion as much. I think this is was is generally refered to as “fucking crazy”.
There are three images from your work that are permanently stuck in my memory. The first is Riviera, the imaginary friend from the youtube version of Problem Solvers. I love that Riviera challenges what is real right up front, because even though he’s imaginary he is “real, really real.” The second and third are from Neon Knome, they are Alfe’s diary pages, which are so beautiful and hypnotic that I find myself thinking about them when I am doing chores around my place. The third is the scene where the three characters are in the Wraps shop and the lady with the big blonde hair in front of Alfe has another animation going on within her clothing. I can’t explain how, but that lady’s clothing spoke to some sub-verbal portion of my brain. Can you talk a little about how images are real, really real?
Rivera was real. Jessica and I found him one day when we were locked in a room. He traveled with us across the country. He was a little block of foam I drew a face on. The love we had for him, was like the love you might have for a child or dog or cat.
Real life and Paper Rad art were very intermixed, not in a super pretentious or escapist adventure time arrested developement way, well…maybe it was those 2 things, but what you saw in the art or the website was real. There were giant trolls sleeping with us, rooms full of 8-bit ghosts and noise gumby raves.
As far as the references from neon knome, both of those were PFFR’s (Wonder Showzen, Xavier, Heart She Holler) as much as mine. Working with PFFR was like getting a chance to work with the Beatles. They can access the unreal.
But your question demands an answer that speaks to things like dreams, surreal imagery, drugs, David Lynch, ect…..But with this type of art and comedy, I think its more akin to how Jimi Hendrix plays guitar. Its just like a thing. You can trace back the references, but its style, luck, inspiration, and fun as much as genius.
Reference Lynch’s book on meditation or watch Monty Python for the source of all of these issues, questions, and answers.
I know your work is not about looking backwards with nostalgia, but instead taking a lifetime of experience and remixing it. That being said, Jim Henson’s two masterpieces The Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal came to mind when thinking about your work. Here’s one example from each movie. There is a scene in The Labyrinth where there are two doors, each door is guarded by a two-headed dog puppet, the puppet dog heads are hiding and emerging from behind the tops and bottoms of big medieval shields. One door leads to certain death, and one leads to the Castle. The premise is that one door guard always lies, and one guard always tells the truth. Sarah, played by Jennifer Connelly, figures out the right question to ask the doors to avoid the path to certain death. I feel like that scene was instructive for people growing up in the 1980s, and helped us make smart decisions when faced with a difficult problem. The thing about The Dark Crystal I would like for you to respond to is a quote from Brian Froud, the artist who did the character design for the film. In the bonus portion of the DVD Froud said “We wanted to make these characters alive, to exist in their own world. Not just for the short time that we see them in the movie.” That quote was so huge for the way I understood art, because it wasn’t just about the story, it was a worldview. So, between these two movies there exists a framework for solving difficult problems and creating a worldview. I feel like your work embodies some of the same qualities. What do you think?
I live and work in Hollywood now. I hope the work I make in the next 10 years addresses this question, with work that is influenced by and celebrates the untouchable platonic ideals made by Henson. For now, I can say, the part I walked away with from Labyrinth was when the little dog whistles for his real dog “Ambrosius!” Cause like….okay lets break this down. A puppet dog rides a big hairy fluffy real dog. Okay, even as a kid you are like, that is a huge fuck you. Second, the fact Sir Didymus has this master/dog relationship is so funny, its like one of your annoying elders acting cool and whistling for a their dog, I mean, what a character moment, a real human character moment inside the most intense fanatsy world. Thats the shit I like. Like in CF powermastrs when characters are drinking soda or something. That get me so pumped. And as for Dark Crystal. That’s not a movie. That’s like injecting acid into a generation’s eyes. I never took acid, cause I saw Dark Cystral at a really young age. Anyway. Talking about this work in the context of me is humbling and fun, but I am better speaking to things like animated gif’s of garfing smoking weed.
When my grandfather died I asked my Dad if he went to heaven. My Dad said he went to purgatory. Beetlejuice came out around the same time as my grandfather died, and the Beetlejuice character was trapped in Purgatory. I was an eleven year old going to Catholic school, and I was worried that my grandfather had to live with Beetlejuice. Beetlejuice is another example of problem solving, a negative example. Beetlejuice is disfigured as a symbolic representation of his personality flaws. Also, Winona Ryder was in that movie, and I have had a crush on her ever since. In your work you have spoken about layering meaning and using pop culture like religion. It made perfect sense to me in the context of my Beetlejuice trauma, and maybe because we were watching the same movies and trying to make sense of the world. What did you mean when you were talking about layers of meaning and using pop culture more like religion?
Micheal Keaton might be in the top 3. In general. Of humans. Tim Burton I totally respect, but he is Rolling Stones, and I am Beatles. Meaning, I don’t like goth drawings where one eye is bigger than the other, I like Matt Groening drawing a bunny, or Gary Panter drawing a muscle dude. I like symmetry and having faith in color and form. Tim is a little bit of a deconstructionist, he tries to break forms. I like Sol Lewitt over Richard Prince. But to address your question, yes full respect for Pee Wee and Beetlejuice.
Some traditional reviewers have not gotten your animation work. Putting aside the fact that Neon Knome is a work of high genius, and these people should find other lines of work if they cannot pick up on that. I think they are mistaking what you do for a superficial associative form of thinking, and in their mind they think “this guy is trying to be ironically cool.” But, going back the previous question, when you are asked about how you work you refer to religious-like imagery, and the superimposition of cultural myths over religious myths, creating layers of meaning. For instance, what did we learn from Jim Henson? We learned about moral choices. What did we learn about from Moses, the same thing we learned about from Henson, moral choices. I think your thinking is along the line of something much more subtle: What if we superimpose Henson over Moses in art, not because of my, Ben Jones’s, personal vision, but because it is already happening in culture. Essentially children, pre-television, learned about ethical decision making through religion. Post-television they learned about it from puppets. That’s not a radical position, it is just a statement of fact, like I am sure anthropologists from the future will make about us. Can you explain some of your mindset or thought process regarding the symbolic reordering you perform in your work?
Okay, well, again, Hi mom. So yes, I was raised by essentially a full fledge high priestess of western and non western religion and spirituality. My mom wanted to be a nun when she was kid, then became a witch when she was older. She now is a licensed spiritualist (talks to dead people). From her I learned to be aware of the great spiritual and religious learning and wisdom collected on earth. She didn’t want me watching TV, but my dad brought home the first Macintosh and taught me to animate. So that about sums me up. I love what you are talking about though. Look, everyone, go read all the Dune Books, watch Holy Mountain, and then find a cool dude or dudette and watch Blue Velvet. This shit is as simple as a good latte. Latte’s are great because. Because they have a harmony and balance. They vibrate with energy and fractals of foamy life esssense. This shit is real and all around us. We don’t need to get caught up in it, but coffee and great art and philosophy should inform your day to day more than stupid shit. The funny thing is I went to Japan recently and they figured this out 2000000 years ago. Go watch Spirited Away or Ponyo. Miasaki is 20000 ahead of all this too.
If you read T.J. Clark’s book about Monet and Impressionism, The Painting of Modern LIfe, Clark basically argues that Monet was on hand to paint the first middle class taking the first vacations. Before that point in time there was no concept of middle class or vacation. According to Clark, Monet was responding to the time he lived in. What would Monet have done if, instead of middle class people on vacation, he had been part of the first group to have computers and video games?
Type in Paper Rad to google image search.
Just kidding, Paper Rad probably has nothing to do with Monet, but we are a beautiful byproduct of an amazing sub culture on earth. A very blessed lucky utopian suburban sub culture. Its as if we were birthed into a Golden Digital Era, and Paper Rad was an exuberant explosion out of the pressure cooker of the 80’s. As kids we were empowered by the first computers, and influenced by the most post modern radical freaks the world has ever seen. Mix in graphitti and rap, and yes, certainly if Monet were alive, his first record would have been Run Dmc and his first painting a Keith Harring rip off, like all of ours were. Though….on second thought, maybe for the rest of Paper Rad it was Ultra Magnetic Mc’s and Phillip Guston, they were always the smart one in the collective.
Your show at Deitch in 2009, The New Dark Age, has been on my mind for years. Both because I am interested in your work in general, but also because of the title. The New Dark Age can be read in more than one way. What both the New Age and the Dark Age have in common is that they take faith and feeling and elevate it above reason. The Dark Age and New Age bookend the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment is basically the elevation of reason above other forms of thinking. Essentially the Dark Age was a time of intense faith which predated the Enlightenment, and the New Age rejects the totally of reason. Both the New Age and Dark Age feature sort of wonderful ways to understand the world, they both essentially personify nature, and they both employ magical thinking. In my opinion magical thinking is easier for humans than reason, because magical thinking immediately creates symbolic meaning. ArtForum basically said the opposite of what I am saying, they claimed the Dark Age and New Age cancelled each other out, which is only right in a very superficial way. What are your thoughts? Were you making a claim about our culture? Was that show a warning?
That show was based on this Song by Polvo. Every Holy Shroud. Off the Album New Dark Age,
its an amazing Math Rock Song. Listen, its great!
Teaching us the code that makes you crack
Let me shoot your picture and i’ll tape it to your back
This is how it works when we crave quotes
Now can you explain all the banners on your boats
Every holy shroud rolled into one
Wrapping up the scene and the cycle it will run
We would like to know where you fit in
What you’re trying to prove with that formulated grin
I know where you are
I wish i was there
In purified air
Let the mesmerizing motivating factors be
Let the cow pull the tractor to me
Well i know what it sounds like
I hope they care
And now we just brought a sitar
So be prepared
Apologetic trips to make you sick
Now i’m toking from this bag of tricks
Celebrate the new dark age with us
Calculate the irony with someone you can trust
Feel the holy shroud that keeps us warm
Show me something round and i’ll analyse the form
Give us something brown that sticks like glue
I’ll recognize the taste and appreciate it too
This is how it works when we write well
Let me hear a bomb i’ll compare it to a bell
I don’t understand why you don’t get it
I can take the time to insure that you regret it
We are seeing through your weak designs
Fellow connoisseurs flip a coin and make a sign
Found on an overcrowded anchored barge
Guilty as charged
But here’s to the underdog who breaks right through
Another inspiration for you
Conspiracies and prophesies that might come true
With technologies and strategies
Antiseptic trips to leave you dry
I have a lot of them i’m willing to try
The ladder is a form you are currently working with. There is a youtube clip where you explain your interest, citing the ubiquitous appearance of the ladder in both religion and games you’ve played. I was wondering if you had read The Cosmic Serpent by Jeremy Narby. Narby is a Stanford trained anthropologist who connects the ladder with DNA, which he then compares to intertwined snakes. Of course, DNA is a kind of code, it has four elements which can ‘speak’ twenty something words which become Amino Acids, which are essentially instructions to build life forms. in the Bible it says “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God.” That biblical quote becomes a little spooky when you think about DNA. Do you think these constant coincidences are random, or are we peaking around the curtain?
I once got to hang out and make some art with Barry Mcgee. The ladder, and all my of stuff is just me trying to celebrate and add to the amazing art that has impacted me. Barry’s cube panels to me looked like qbert blocks, but he was referencing something else. The ladder was me referencing an 8-bit pattern, but I love how it has become more than the sum of its parts. It is everything in your amazing question. You can’t make or plan art. Art is here for us to grasp at, in the creation and understanding. Thats a good idea to end this interview on. I could go back and erase Drake saying the word Bitch. But no. I won’t. Just remember me as an artist and funny guy. Peace and Love.