Catalogue essay by Jan Guy

Publication: Claude Jones: Recent Works, 2010

Fields and Herds

The European imaginary view of the Antipodes depicted a place inhabited by fantastical monsters; colonisation did little to change this, for Australia was populated with exotic creatures such as the platypus and kangaroo that to the European eye were indeed strange hybrids.

Then comes a quadruped as big as a large cat, with the eyes, colour, and skin of a mole, and the bill and web-feet of a duck — puzzling Dr Shaw, and rendering the latter half of his life miserable, from his utter inability to determine whether it was a bird or a beast.[1]

This marriage of the imaginary and the real has become part of this country’s psyche, and peculiar hybridities, a focal point for several contemporary artists including Claude Jones. She, like others such as Patricia Puccinini, Fiona Hall and Louise Weaver, has mined the symbology of mutations to examine notions of taxonomy, gene modification and exoticism.

Jones’s early works resonated closely with the early naturalists’ whimsical fascination with hybridity and resulted in prints of strange, delicate, botanical and biological monstrosities set in dark, unchartered landscapes where a seamless construction of reality revealed their artificial nature. Unlike her recent sculpture, her early assembled works were deliberately awkward in their construction and this rawness exposed their artificiality; oddly this seemed to be the reverse strategy to that found in her prints from the same period.

While her use of traditional print technologies and formats continues to speak of past realities and reflect her interest in the grotesque and the beautiful, now, Jones states that her foremost concern is the ethical treatment of animals. This, it seems, is a natural progression after her prolonged examination of methods of taxonomy has revealed the absurd and sometimes destructive hierarchies inherent in such systems. Though her work still focuses on the hybrid and retains a whimsical quality, a dark content has replaced the dark landscape.

One is drawn to Jones’s prints by her deft manipulation of large fields of lush and intensely vibrant colour and borrowed prints. This gives the work a poster-like quality, particularly in the large prints from 2009 such as flowering raborse, where the hybrid creatures appear like crests on a flag. Her most recent prints that were first shown at Artereal gallery in Sydney in 2010 seem slightly sinister. The fields of colour, while still retained, have taken on elements of domestic settings – the suggestion of floorboards, the repetition of patterns that imply wallpaper. They appear as if oversized pages from a children’s picture book, but these are allegories for adults.

The 2010 large print Endangered Species is both powerful and disturbing. The square format, which is rarely used, gives the impression that the viewer is a voyeur privy to a scene that goes on behind closed doors; but one is not an innocent observer because the terrible act has not yet been completed. The origins of Jones’s concern with humans’ treatment of animals are revealed here in several ways. We are trapped here, the hybrid creatures in the scenario are trapped, this is borne out by the artist’s subtle use of one of the most horrendous of devices used against animals – the bear trap – as repetitive wallpaper design, even more insidious because of its beige hue. This seemingly innocuous background only serves to intensify the action of the players in the foreground. While the narrative can be read on a superficial level as a difference of opinion between two species – the chimpanzee (who perhaps stands in for homo sapiens) and the rabbit, Jones does not let it rest there. The monkey man would appear to be aiming the gun at the mother of his own children as his clothing is of the same cut and colour as theirs. Jones’s seamless positioning of the nineteenth century etching reproductions against the flattened, cartoon-like block colour dramatizes the intensity of the relationships of the figures. One is forced to read these creatures as both animal and human, one is alerted to the reality of animals having family and group relationships like us; similarly, founded on depth and intimacy. The artist’s literal anthropomorphizing of animals points to her belief that they have the same potential for emotional response and morality that we do. And while one might understand this as speculative fancy, it is a debate that rages within today’s contemporary scientific community.

The scientist Marc Bekoff argues that while we seem to accept evidence for a certain level of animal intelligence, any suggestion of an emotional acuity is difficult for us to swallow. He has documented cases of animals mourning, noting changes in behaviour after the death of an individual in flocks of magpies and parades of elephants.[2] Moreover recent findings by biologists at the University of Washington show evidence of cross-species social behaviour with crows found to recognize human faces.[3] Others dismiss such claims as anecdotal sentimentality. Jones, however, is able to prompt serious discussion of animal rights precisely because of a veil of sentimentality.

While Jones’ prints concentrate on our relationships with animals as pets and food, her sculptures carry this further and critique our use of them as fashion and commercialised products. Works such as cattus equus appeal to one’s sense of desire for the designer object including pets, particularly one’s longing for objects customized to suit the individual (the latest commodification strategy driving mass production).[4] Cattus and its altered twin equine filidae prance like unnatural show ponies and their miniature scale and life-like crystal blue eyes allude to something rare and precious – they are a delightful curiosities. But here again, Jones disrupts our prurient pleasure with a subversive strategy similar to the wallpaper motifs in Endangered Species; these creatures appear to have hides made of fish scales or bird feathers, but in the case of cattus each feather carries the print of an human embryo suggesting our genetic manipulation of animals has at its origins our own drive for perfection.  Alternatively, Equine filidae’s coat bares the same device found in Endangered Species, the bear trap, directing us towards the cruel origins of manufactured beauty.  The goal of human and individual perfection is revealed as ruthless and ethically questionable.

The smooth elegant deer bodies of lagamorph canidae (in blue) and lagamorph canidae (in red) divulge the present day museum’s use of the fibreglass animal frame and in doing so, also reveal the hidden violence of its collection. The red and blue of the works’ titles and the rabbit heads that can only be read as fur collars, once again suggest a secondary collection, one of fashion. The artist’s entwinement of the two types of collection implies that the purpose and design of the natural history museum’s collection is as frivolous as the changing whims of couture.

Claude Jones’s works ask the viewer to believe in the existence (if not now, at least in the past or future) of the artist’s fabricated anomalies. It is this questioning of the nature of reality, the construction of new fictions, and the power of the imaginary that provides one with a palatable space from which to scrutinize one’s position in the herd.

[1] Rev. Sydney Smith cited by D. Cowley and B. Hubber in ‘Distinct Creation:
Early European images of Australian animals’ The La Trobe Journal, No.66, Spring 2000, p.17

[2] Helga DHave Part 1 of the interview with Marc Bekoff: ‘Animals have Emotions and Morality

[3] Michelle Nijhuis Friend or Foe? Crows Never Forget a Face, It Seems

[4] Digital Forming Ò