Animatio Absurdus: The Rumpus Interview with Arthur Jones

By


Gored by a banana on a barroom floor, a man lies supine as a nun slaps a midget, a down-and-out Santa drinks hard and a sullied beauty queen totes a severed head.These are not characters in a Jean Genet play. They are the back-drop for the opening of Arthur Jones’s animated video for Mister Jung Stuffed, by punk band Man Man. And if you’ve seen any of Jones’s work, you’ll know that these types of humorous, grotesque and sharply drawn caricatures make up the select vocabulary of Jones’s tragicomic, well-formed syntax.

In the video, a young man returns from the bar to find his girlfriend groping another man. He doesn’t, as one might expect, walk away wondering what he did wrong. Suddenly stripped of his illusions, and his actions rendered useless, his flesh falls away, and his skeleton, flames rising up around it, plummets through a fiery underworld onto a flat-bottomed boat where it punts into a serpent’s maw. His girlfriend also drops her skin and falls reuniting with her guy-bones, forever shackled in their condition. It is a condensed theater of the absurd informed as much by Samuel Beckett as it is by Donkey Kong, Superman and Wonder Showzen, a stage depicting human failure without a clearly recommended solution. Though, the skeletal pair in Jones’s video do seem contented.

Because Jones’s work is deeply felt and humorous, exposing the internal life of his characters–awkwardness, faults and all–it takes repeated and extended viewing of his work to realize just how much violence he subjects his characters to; but all in good fun, of course. Jones’s early work (1998-2005), created after college, and which can be viewed in his “time capsule” gallery gorillasuit.com, is no more violent than Bugs Bunny—sheep get squashed by a giant monster, a gentleman is beaten and abducted by aliens, and a Superman is saddled with the superpower of whacking octogenarians. His latest work, like his video Everybody at the Beach, exhibits elements of tragicomedy, interjecting general good fun with tragic horrific incidents. But these moments are so flat and sudden, you’re laughing along with a car full of happy family folk a split second after two  teens are gut-hanged from a swordfish.

A self-proclaimed atheist, Jones was raised in Missouri by devout Southern Baptists, a religious mantle he shed on his move to Providence, Rhode Island where he received his B.F.A. from the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). But it’s too easy to infer that Jones’s idiosyncratic profane aesthetic is a backlash against a fundamentalist upbringing or to say his work is a staging of the disturbing secret desires against which the Good Book warns. His sophisticated and nuanced creations, and his broad range of subject matter, as well as the profound handling of those subjects, especially as evinced in his current work, defy such reduction. His latest work includes two short films, Wednesday and its sequel Diary of Bad Days, Post-It Note animations, and illustrations for This American Life among other Jonesian offerings.

But much of his work speaks to the absurdity of living. Take the heart-searching Anger, Depression and the Abominable Snowman, which features a seasonally depressed yeti whose attention is always trained on the coming of some future prospect–like Hamm and Clov in Beckett’s Endgame–a time he will have triumphed over suffering. He dreams of Waikiki and Fiji, but his dreams, like the one about kissing a mysterious girl on a beach, are punctured by reality–a pesky seal, for example, which the yeti clubs and devours with one perfunctory swipe. After all, he is an abominable snowman, and snowmen too must eat.

After RISD, Jones moved to Chicago, where he met Davy Rothbart and Jason Bitner of Found Magazine, and Starlee Kine, a contributor to This American Life, with whom he would begin collaborations that would lead him, seven years later, to New York. He teamed up with Rothbart and Bitner becoming the Art Director of foundmagazine.com and later the editor of Found’s spinoff Dirty Found. With Kine, he created the Post-It Note Reading Series, which is both a website and a realtime “reading show” where he illustrates and presents other people’s stories with his Post-It Note sketches. The series has toured New York, Chicago and Seattle and includes tales by David Rakoff, “Seasons of Love,” and Jonathan Goldstein, “Man not Superman.” Other great finds on the Post-It Note Stories site is “Starlee and Arthur Review the Art of Sophie Calle,” and “I Still Love Jessica,” a video that animates an actual, and somewhat awkward, phone conversation between the writer Rodney Rothman and a teenage love long lost.

Though Jones’s work has primarily been illustration and animation, he has a story on the loss of his virginity forthcoming in the anthology Cassette From My Ex: Stories and Soundtracks of Lost Loves edited by Jason Bitner, which will be released by St. Martin’s Press in October 2009. Over the course of a few emails, Jones discusses evangelical puppet troupes, torrents of fake blood in biblical dioramas, and being a young republican in high school.

**

The Rumpus: How did you first become interested in illustration?

Arthur Jones: I’m not sure when I first became interested in illustration, per se. But I’ve always drawn. And it never occurred to me that I was talented until other kids recognized that I could draw E.T. better than them. My father used to doodle and I’m sure observing him draw had an impact on me. The only time he regularly drew was on Sundays. He would sketch on the back of the church bulletin. He drew about four things very well. He could draw the shit out of cows, fence posts, trees and grass covered hills. He was a fan of American art like Norman Rockwell and the Wyeth Family. Lately he’s been into Thomas Kinkade, largely because of his religious views. I keep telling him that the paintings are terrible but he won’t listen. I think he thinks art school brainwashed me.

Rumpus: You were raised by devout Southern Baptists. What was your early life like and how did that influence your work?

Jones: My parents were very devout, and serious people. Our family identity was completely wrapped up in the Southern Baptist Church. As a kid I participated in mostly Christian activities. For example, I wasn’t a Boy Scout, I guess they were too liberal. I was a Royal Ambassador, the Baptist equivalent. My Mom led an evangelical puppet troupe and we toured mall food courts all over Central Missouri. She made the stage herself and all the puppets. Which were really high quality puppets—Muppet quality puppets. Her whale for our “Jonah and the Whale” skit was amazing. We had a basement full of fabric, beads, googley eyes, fake fur, anything and everything that could be hot-glued. She made felt banners, flower arrangements, decorative furniture, clay sculptures, and shrinky-dink jewelry. She would never call herself an artist but she is one.

Rumpus: Southern Baptists aren’t particularly well known for observing the Jewish High Holidays. Rumor has it your family celebrated some of those traditions. Explain.

Jones: I never really understood what Judaism was as a kid. There is a Synagogue in downtown Jefferson City but it looks boarded up, abandoned, and to a child a little scary.
My Mom was into faith-based celebration and both my parents were into Biblical history. Easter was big with us, and there was a lot of “Christ” in Christmas. We made our own nativity scenes out of clay and, in addition to setting up a Christmas tree, we often lit a Chanukah menorah. We celebrated Passover, which was a little weird considering just how Gentile we were. My Mom came up with her own Passover Haggadah and it was pretty faithful to the Jewish tradition. But she added a Jesusy epilogue to the end of the ceremony and we drank sparkling grape juice, not wine. My parents had a pretty eccentric take on worship, which now, as an adult, I think is cool and recognize its uniqueness. I’ve since celebrated Passover with Jewish friends and realize how much of the ceremony is about getting blasted with your friends and family. Our family Passovers weren’t nearly as fun.

Rumpus: How was your work informed by your experience at RISD, and how was your work received? I recently read Funny Misshapen Body by Jeffrey Brown, in which the narrator’s artwork is misunderstood by the faculty who read his work with a particular “academic” lens. I’m wondering if your experience in school was anything like that.

Jones: I’ve read that Jeffrey Brown comic and my classes weren’t like that. I really wanted to fit in and therefore I made really mediocre work. I never asserted my identity there. Many of my classmates came from arts high schools, had rich parents or artistic families. Before moving to Providence, I’d never visited Providence and had only flown on a plane twice. I didn’t even know who Picasso was. I knew nothing of art history or punk rock or fashion or anything. I decided I wanted to paint in oil because that seemed serious and noteworthy. But my stuff always had an inadvertent goofy quality to it. One semester I made crazy biblical dioramas. In one, David is holding Goliath’s severed head and I rigged up a recirculating pump to Goliath’s neck so a torrent of fake blood constantly ran from his jugular. The effect was gory and pretty funny. That piece was the beginning of things for me; asserting my sense of humor in my artwork and leaving my past behind.

Rumpus: You started out at RISD doing political cartoons. What was the inspiration behind that work?

Jones: I got into RISD with drawings from high school, several of which were political cartoons—really conservative cartoons. They were all recycled George Bush Sr. jokes–ideas that I’d lifted from other political cartoonists or from right wing talk radio. I haven’t scanned them but one hangs in my parents’ hallway to this day; it’s of George Bush Sr. wrapped in an American flag holding a torch like the Statue of Liberty, standing on top of Micheal Dukakis. There’s no punch line, and in hindsight it barely makes sense. But I remember feeling really indignant about the whole “flagburning” issue as a young Republican teenager. I loved drawing Micheal Dukakis. I drew him constantly. He had those big eyebrows and that huge nose. I could draw him in 10 seconds. I drew him on my locker and on my notebooks. I really hated him for some reason. I was such a little fucker.

Yesterday my dad sent me an email about what a “fascist” Obama is and I’m sure there is a part of him that still wishes I drew and thought the way I did back in high school.

Rumpus: I think you’d probably recoil from categorization, but do you consider yourself an underground artist?

Jones: I don’t know if I’m underground or not. The internet makes everything pretty accessible. Underground used to mean “hard to find.” The internet has a way of mainstreaming everything. Any artist, any musician, any sexual kink, any political view point, it’s all there.

Rumpus: Writing seems essential to your illustration and animation, especially in the Post-It note series (I’m thinking the animated Post-It Note story Anger, Depression and the Abominable Snowman). Which comes to you first, images or words?

Jones: Words are a big deal to me. I’m verbal and visual and I’m always struggling to find a way to smash those two parts of my cerebral cortex together. Sometimes it works, sometimes it feels mentally disjunctive. When I draw it feels very natural—intuitive. I don’t think about it, I just do it. My visual vocabulary is self-selecting and second nature to me. Writing is harder for me. It’s something I struggle with. Drawing always comes first.

Rumpus: After RISD, you lived in Chicago for seven years. Many funny people have come out of Chicago–Bill Murray, John Belushi, Stephen Colbert, as well as some well known graphic novelists–Dan Clowes and Jeff Brown. I once heard someone from Chicago say, “Everyone in Chicago is funny.” Do you agree?

Jones: Chicago is funny but not as funny as people think. For every John Belushi there is an army of drunk, bloated, grumpy seasonal depressives. It’s a great city but a hard place. Everyone hates living there and that crappy attitude poisons the city’s culture.  I totally love the place but living there and staying creative can be an uphill struggle.

Rumpus: There is another Arthur Jones out there, the inventor of Nautilus, who has inspired some research on your part, at least for a few weeks as I recall. If you could ask him something, what would it be?

Jones: I guess I’d ask him how his name shaped his life. Did kids call him “Art the Fart” when he was a child?

Rumpus: You are the Art Director of foundmagazine.com and Dirty Found, magazines that share weird and sometimes amazing things that people find, whether they’re notes stuck to windshields, poetry on napkins, to-do lists, etc. What’s the most surprising thing that was ever sent to you?

Jones: Someone gave me a photo once called “Pete’s Hole.”  It’s called that because those words are written on a part of subject matter’s anatomy. It’s the most messed up thing I’ve ever seen. I’ll spare you the details, but it’s way too dirty for Found, and way way too dirty for Dirty Found.

Rumpus: You’re certainly full of surprises. But is there anything you can say, that you haven’t already said, that would surprise me, or anyone?

Jones: Pffttttt (that was me, holding the palm of my hand to my mouth and blowing)—that’s off the record btw! Wait it’s on the record… no off…shit I don’t know Rozi. Hope you are having a good day I’m going to go eat a sandwich.


Rozalia Jovanovic is a founding editor of Gigantic, a magazine of short prose and art. She is the Deputy Editor of Flavorpill and has received fellowships from The MacDowell Colony and Columbia University. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming from Unsaid, The Believer, Everyday Genius, Guernica, elimae, and Esquire.com. She blogs at The Astonishing Egg and is The Rumpus New York Editor. More from this author →