Doubtful knowledge: recent paintings by Shane Jones, 1999–2001

Drawing falls and folds of cloth has been a standard exercise for student artists in their teachers’ studios. Along with perspective, chiaroscuro, flesh, and hundreds more particular painterly ‘rules’, mastering this painting exercise is a foundation of depicting human reality. Without it, it would be impossible to present any image of a man or woman in his or her social reality. It is not only the depiction of our clothing that the painter has to master—the space in which it appears, the volume it contains, the sources of light playing on its infinitely varied surfaces. There are also beds, furniture, curtains, and all the rest.

Shane Jones was apprenticed to the depiction of reality in paintings for twenty years before his own peculiar ‘take’ on realism began to emerge in his work. Virtually all the early paintings—still lives, street scenes, rooms and objects—have been destroyed. It is strange, now, that everything he has learned about painting is pressed to the task of depicting a reality that none of us has ever seen: a realism that looks like pure psychology.

A man dressed in a gray suit and a woman in a long, deep red dress stand with their backs to us. Behind them is a white curtain which reaches from somewhere out of the top of the painting to the surface the figures are standing on. There are actually two curtains: one for each of the figures. We can see, in the middle of the painting, that the two falls of curtain meet and overlap—except at the very bottom, where a small, triangular, black space, tells us that there is nothing or something on the other side of the space in which the figures stand. If you knew the artist, you would immediately recognize the male figure as the artist himself. However, for the purpose of the picture, it is just a man. There is nothing very special about him at all. We cannot see his face. We do not know whether he is anxious or calm, handsome or ugly. His companion, the woman in the red dress, may not be his companion at all: the two figures have adopted the same pose before us, turned away from our gaze, but they are not standing together. Well, they are not necessarily standing together. She has no feet. The dress is just long enough—just the right length—for the feet to be hidden. She seems to hover on the stage. Is it a stage? If it is a stage, are we also part of the performance that is about to begin, or that has just ended? Should we feel relieved and happy that the drama is over, or apprehensive because it just about to begin? The curtain may not be the curtain of a stage at all—perhaps it is only a curtain, a white sheet hanging in a gallery, much like the room in which the picture itself is hanging.

For the past four years Shane Jones has been methodically emptying his paintings of unnecessary clutter. In 1996 he won the Norma Bull Prize for a self-portrait. He emptied the room in which he painted himself by lowering the point from which the viewer seems to look on him: only the ceiling and an empty wall are visible in the background.

In 1997 Shane Jones saw the paintings of Avigdor Arikha (1929-), in particular ‘Slippers and Undershirt’ [1979]. The discarded clothing in these paintings, arranged like abstractions, seem heavily laden with their absent human bodies and activities. Shane Jones began to paint articles of clothing and falls of cloth. But these paintings are not copies of the effects Arikha achieved, any more than Arikha’s ‘Self-Portrait in a Raincoat, Peering’ (1988) is a copy of Joshua Reynolds‘ ‘Self-Portrait’ (c. 1748-9). Jones emptied his paintings of any discernable background and, as well, of perspective: handkerchiefs and cloths were unfolded and flattened to reveal their commonplace designs. These objects, sometimes painted at ten or twenty times their natural size, sometimes at ‘actual size’, were presented as though emptied of their function. No longer useful or used objects, they became simply something to look at: reality magnified. Articles of clothing, male and female, were presented to us neatly, often actually on their hangers, but floating in black space. Dresses, shirts and jumpers are the ghosts of their owners.

Deborah Klein and Shane Jones.
Deborah Klein and Shane Jones.

An untitled painting of 1998 went so far as to show only what appeared to be a white sheet suspended in black space, the upper left-hand corner hinting at something that could not be seen—a hook or nail holding everything up. We are forced to acknowledge our first ideas are often wrong when we notice the white sheet is, in fact, full of color—pinks, mauves and greens.

Underneath the thin veils that now hide his subjects’ faces, Jones has painted a real portrait of himself, a model or a mannequin. There is a Japanese flavor in the spatial arrangements and blank interiors that owe much to James McNeill Whistler.

Asked about the meaning of his paintings, Jones sometimes quotes Benjamin Disraeli: “To be conscious that you are ignorant is a great step to knowledge.” Or, at other times, he will say: “When I was twenty I thought I knew everything; at forty I thought I didn’t know anything at all…” This is really Jones’s subject: the feeling that we do not know very much about other people or about ourselves: uncertainty and ignorance painted with pared-down, formalised and quasi-realistic effect: the suspicion that commonplace certainties might some day turn out to be doubtful knowledge.