Sunday, September 8, 2013

On Johnny Redleaf and the Freaks of Nature by Kent Allen Jones

Although lasting a few short minutes, and being only a teaser for a larger project ( a full length screenplay), I found myself watching this video over and again as a kind of daily fix. Based on the life of Johnny Redleaf, a friend of Jones', Jones has created a coterie of remarkably detailed figure sculptures that he has set in stop-action motion to the song “The Bird That Follows Me,” a soundtrack by the group The Strumbellas.

The video can be seen here:

Jones, in a video interview by Gene Shibuya , which on a recent Laboratory Arts Collective DVD precedes the animated short, cites the influence of Breughel and Goya. In keeping with finding inspirations in pre-modern ideas, Jones’ animation is heir to animated clocks,  found in old European towns and villages whose cast of characters, like Jones’, include the grim reaper. Specters that are both curiously engaging and strangely moving, we are reminded of the transience of life; that the sand in our hourglasses is irrevocably slipping away. The lyrics to the soundtrack reprise: “Oh, I believe in death, ‘cause death has always won the last hand…”

Like their Gothic antecedents, Johnny and crew’s gazes are fixed, their expressions blank or limited, they wink and grimace, smile or look surprised as a jack-in-the-box. They move about haltingly, they don’t walk; they slide as if they are being pulled along. Their bodies are oddly deformed. The men share a stock build (perhaps made from the same mold) that also appears in Jones’ other works; they have huge barrel chests, sway-backed haunches that are hyper-developed yet they rest on spindly, wasted legs that frame deep set genitals accentuated by the skin-tight union suits and thermal underwear that many of them sport.  Their anatomies as well as their outfits are puzzles left open to interpretation, but the overall impression is their physical shells are cast-offs, gratuitous costumes; their last vestments have been put back on so they can be seen in the earthly realm.    

Deep in our psyches, we think of statuary as fixed and immobile. Living sculpture is the stuff of the Pygmalion myth. By animating figurative sculpture whether by mechanical devices or stop-action there is a peculiar disconnect that occurs.  Knocked off balance we are launched into a space where we don’t quite know how to digest what we are seeing. Are we amused, frightened, or both? 

The simple story line of the music video consists of the characters entering a forest for a cookout (they bring along a grille, but there is never any food prepared or eaten) and they then play their various instruments. We hear singing voices, but they come from somewhere else. That the vocals and perhaps their playing of diminutive instruments doesn't synchronize is not really an issue; these characters live in their own underworld.  

However, there is a short but pivotal section of video that takes place away from the mythical space. It likely is a side-room in Jones’ studio. Jones in full costume, made up as a Freak of Nature, complete with major body padding and a false W.C. Fields-like nose enters the space. He then meets up with his initially still and lifeless pint-sized double whose face is unmistakably shared with the artist. The tiny figure comes to life and there is a dumb-show and a bit of clowning around. It as if they are comparing themselves and perhaps chaffing each other as to who looks better or is more true to an ambiguous reality.

Because the interview precedes the music video, the viewer recognizes that here is Jones, disguised as his creation, engaging it directly and giving it life. It’s like the mirror that faces a mirror and recedes into infinite space.   But the emotional gut punch is delivered by the realization that the artist is willing to become identified with his creation and descend into its world full stop despite its grotesque, unlovable form. Unconcerned that he might look utterly ridiculous and creepy, he demonstrates his full immersion and commitment to the creative process; he metaphorically takes the last plunge.

Jones appears to be in his 50’s. For a twenty or thirty something artist to have done this, it would not have worked; it would not have made sense. When one is art school age it’s very easy to have a fascination with death and knock it about, and be dark for the sake of effect; death and finality is far away, an abstraction.  One doesn't think about this or that project possibly being the last go round or about what one’s whole career tallies. For the middle to late career artist, as in the song that accompanies the video, these are everyday realities: “There’s that bird that follows me, singing from a branch of a dying tree…”  Jones makes the elegy take wing. 

Photo courtesy of, Astrological clock, Prague. 

1 comment:

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