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VOL. 126 | NO. 30 | Monday, February 14, 2011

‘Radical Painter’ on Display at Dixon

JONATHAN DEVIN | Special to The Memphis News

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The Dixon Gallery and Gardens continues its foray into the major schools of American art with a look at the loaded compositions of a worker artist with a simple name.

The Dixon Gallery & Gardens takes another detour into American art with “Joe Jones: Radical Painter of the American Scene,” 12 years of bold artistic pronouncements on American life as seen through the eyes of a young painter in the 1930s. (Photo: Courtesy of the Dixon Gallery & Gardens)

Joe Jones: Radical Painter of the American Scene” opened at the Dixon last month and runs through April 17. It is the latest in a string of American exhibits to fill the galleries of Memphis’ hub for French Impressionism.

Dixon director Kevin Sharp said the museum’s audience has welcomed the change of themes. Since 2007, the Dixon has offered exhibits on the American Civil War era, the 1930s and even 1950s Lucite handbags – and attendance is up 85 percent.

“(American art) is where my training is,” said Sharp, who formerly curated American art for museums in Chicago and West Palm Beach, Fla. “It’s the art market I know best and it’s a favorite area of mine. Given that we almost always have French art on view here with our wonderful permanent collection, it seemed like an opportunity to have some diversity on our programming.”

The Joe Jones exhibition offers yet another historic perspective on American art as seen through the eyes of a self-made artist. It covers 12 early years in his career, from 1930 to 1942, when Jones was in his 20s and early 30s, and still very much experimenting with his subjects.

The St. Louis Museum primarily organized the exhibit, though others, including Sharp, contributed.

The exhibition opens with portraits of women, including Jones’ wife, Freda, most of whom look downcast, hiding their eyes as if keeping a secret. Though Jones’ style and subject matter seem to evolve drastically over the years, his compositions are all jam-packed. Single figures fill entire canvases and landscapes such as the many of murky St. Louis streets and rooftops or hay threshers in the field contain delicately hidden figures and shapes.

“(The composition) is the thing that’s really hard to account for,” Sharp said. “He’s a wonderful colorist right off the bat, but he was a house painter, so he understands which colors look nice with each other. That training, which seems irrelevant, actually helped him in his early experiments. Where he learned to make these extraordinary compositions is beyond me, given that he had no formal training.”

Sharp wrote the section of the exhibition’s catalog on Jones’ time as director of the Ste. Genevieve Art School, a small school 65 miles downriver from St. Louis, where important if not highly celebrated artists migrated after the Great Depression. Jones eventually taught there while exploring the Dust Bowl. Most of the paintings are accompanied by Jones’ photos and study sketches alongside.

“I think this is something the show does really well – showing the relationship between documentation in his photographs and some of his drawings and the way they get translated into the finished paintings,” Sharp said. “On the one hand, he’s attracted to the beauty of (the Dust Bowl). On the other hand, the landscape is being devastated and he can’t help but see the pathos as well.”

Human emotions are also treated with blatancy in works meant to bolster the perspective of America as a state of workers. Jones, who was a Communist, painted angry scenes in which dock workers and factory workers with oversized arms and fists demand better conditions while seeming to fight their way out of shadows. But in the 1930s it wasn’t hard to identify with his sentiments, and the handsome, brash Jones became a media darling.

“There were a lot of people who thought a lot of things were wrong in America in the 1930s, so (Jones’) willingness to be outspoken was actually one of his greatest assets,” Sharp said. “He was proud of the fact that he was an artist that carried a union card. He thought of himself as a worker artist. That was his job.”

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