Back in the mid-1990s, in an author talk at Washington University in St. Louis, writer E. Shaskan Bumas shrewdly remarked that graduate writing programs had contributed more to the homogenization of American literature than to its diversity. This comment, made somewhat in passing (and to the chagrin of that university’s Creative Writing department), has in hindsight turned out to be predictive not only of the state of literature, but the arts collectively. When the arts reach a point where even the avant garde is prescriptive, innovation sputters and dies.
More recently, St. Louis-based writer Sarah Kendzior observed that the over-gentrification of those iconic cities formerly known as creative meccas has had much the same effect as the homogenization of which Bumas spoke two decades ago. In “Expensive cities are killing creativity,” Kendzior substantiates the idea that the commodification of originality and innovation leads to one conclusion: Creativity is not marketable merchandise. When art is commoditized, every installation begins to resemble the next and the hype is as formulaic as the product being hyped.
Kendzior’s straightforward antidote to this sanctioned stifling of creative diversity rings clear to artists. “Reject the places where you cannot speak out, and create, and think, and fail. Open your eyes to where you are, and see where you can go.” If January fruits are any indication, St. Louis holds a rich and varied artistic harvest in store this year, beginning with the fresh new exhibit at Julie Malone’s SOHA Studio and Gallery. “TOOLSHED: Sculpture by Howard Jones” is the sort of installation we might have seen at a pre-Reagan-era East Village gallery, before the property values skyrocketed and the trust fund babies moved in. Jones’s work is new, it’s visionary, and it’s incongruous; in short, it’s not going to appeal to every taste.
That said, the reception of Howard Jones's work at Friday’s opening was both enthusiastic and engaged. Jones’s sculptures, 61 in total, are singular items seamlessly conjoined from everyday objects, sometimes related (“Heel,” for example, joins a pair of chic ladies’ pumps into a single awkwardly elegant construction) and other times seemingly accidental (as in “Stone Hearth Chair,” the juxtaposition of a carved parlor chair and stacked hearthstones). To see the potential in such commonplace objects as hacksaws and pine cones takes a very special vision, but Jones's "hybridization" of the components in his sculptures also requires no small amount of skill.
Each piece, in fact, looks as though it was manufactured originally to be precisely what it is and nothing else. No cobbled together amalgam in Howard Jones’s toolshed! Every sculpture somehow exudes the right to occupy the space around it, each possessing the strange beauty and presence of a Hieronymus Bosch painting rather than the surreal relativity of, say, Dali’s melting clocks. In his artist’s statement for the show, Jones affirms that his interest lies in “objects common in their description only because they have been refined over time and served so nobly. I know these objects well, and have used many of them as first intended. I imagine a use for them in keeping with their original purpose, yet more specific." So specific, in fact, that each piece is unique. While one of Jones’s sculptures may, occasionally, resemble another (the series of brushes, "Thorn Brush," "Grass Brush," "Root Brush," and "Catalpa Brush," for example), no two constructions are ever alike, nor could they be.
The very nature of Jones’s work defies commodification. Though the sculptures in Jones’s Toolshed resist homogenization, they embody the concept of reinvention. As the artistic breeding grounds of the 20th century transform themselves into what Sarah Kendzior terms “gated citadels” for those “priced out into irrelevance,” the 21st century sees unexpected cities like Detroit, St. Louis, and Chattanooga; Jaipur, Bruges, and Porto, reimagining themselves as fertile landscapes for emerging artists. And all the while, in Howard Jones’s microcosm, a blade of grass can reinvent itself as anything the artist can imagine.
© M.T.Erickson 2014