In the Present Day and in the Present Tense: Tom Jones’s Remnants
“Historically it has been outsiders who have taken these photographs of Native Americans. We have generally been represented with beads and feathers; this example can be seen through the extraordinary photographic portrayals of Edward Curtis. While this is an aspect of our life, the emphasis of my current body of work is focused on the members of my tribe and the environments in which they live, giving a name and face to the individuals and their way of life in our own time. […] I am ever mindful of my responsibility to the tribe and to carry on a sense of pride about who and what we are as a people.” — Tom Jones
Remnants, the latest series by artist Tom Jones, is a master-class study in what happens when the lens that has been on the camera of history (as told by its supposed victors) turns back to look directly at the photographer, and then commences to tell them exactly what was left out of the frame.
I have been following and admiring Jones’s work for the better part of two decades, looking to his various projects as highly effective examples of how to do more than just make a viewer stop and look, but to enter into the work and think about it too, engage empathetically with its maker, and then stick around to stay looking. It sounds like a fairly straightforward goal that any image maker would claim to be their own, but in reality most don’t get much beyond that first pass. Jones is patient with his process and with his viewers, and that patience is sensed and repaid with consideration and presence.
Jones, an artist, curator and educator, is an enrolled member of the Ho-Chunk nation, which encompasses Wisconsin, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa and Minnesota. His entire oeuvre is one that is concerned with articulating and commenting upon the complexities inherent in contemporary experience and representation of American Indians. His work is characteristically accessible, subtly wry and piercing with intentional internally conflicted layers of meaning. His focus is not simply a critique of white, Western representation of native culture, but also interweaves the complexity of current embodied American Indian identity as experienced and informed by these misrepresentations, as well as examines and comments upon how perceptions and portrayals of native culture has created assumptions and distorted understandings that have served to globally shape a collective notion of what it looks like and means to be “Indian.”
For this latest series, Jones has visited over 100 native casinos from Wisconsin to Texas, photographing the designs of the carpets in these spaces, and then pairing these in a display with an etching on glass of a historical illustration. The source for the etchings range from 19th century weekly newspapers such as Harper’s Weekly, 16th century engravings of European expeditions to the Americas and postcards from the late 1800s or early 20th century; images which Jones has encountered in the course of his research or his travels. As is typical of much of his work, the etchings do not speak to a single point-of-view, but range over a dense terrain of influences, events and perceptions over time as experienced by both American Indians and non-natives: Spanish conquistadors and the subsequent tyrannical agenda of religious conversion; political newspaper cartoons either sympathizing or satirizing events involving American Indians, or historical engravings striving for accuracy of depiction in rendering costuming or rituals. The tone of these range from jocular, to racist, to matter-of-fact: this happened in this way, and sometimes all three at once.
One particularly striking diptych shows a carpet sporting a bright 1970's-era pot-roast color scheme of greens, yellows, browns and oranges. The psychedelic patterning undulates in a design that would not be out of place in a pair of period bell-bottoms. It’s also reminiscent of the nested organic shapes that occur when a rock is thrown into a body of still water, with a tight nucleus reverberating out into wide arcs. Adjacent to this cheery abstraction is an etching of a cartoon woodcut of a segmented snake, with an austere caption beneath which reads: “JOIN OR DIE.” Immediately the viewer is struck with the sensation that they have seen this drawing before, but they do not remember where. And simultaneous to this is the recognition that one’s first-pass reading of the carpet image is changed radically by its pairing with its fraternal twin.
The cartoon itself has most recently been utilized by soccer teams, tattoo parlors, video games and popular television dramas, and it may be these references that the viewer is striving to place in their mind. Its origins, however, lie with Benjamin Franklin’s use of it as a political cartoon in his newspaper The Pennsylvania Gazette, in 1794. At the time, it was a comment on the urgency of colonial unity, as is evidenced by the initials of the colony names shown in the segments of the snake. There was a prevailing superstition that a snake which had been cut up into pieces could resurrect as one again if its disjointed pieces were put back together before sunset. In Jones’s re-appropriation, it becomes rich with competing meanings and readings: it could be interpreted as a dire warning to native peoples regarding the necessity of independently sovereign tribes to unite; it could even simultaneously be referring to the metamorphosis of a newly formed nation of white European immigrants uniting in their increasing aggression and overreach in seizing lands and resources of American Indians via the fervent embrace of the notions of Manifest Destiny, which was being widely propagated during the period of Reconstruction and the Westward Expansion.
Rival meanings and multiple intended audiences are a sophisticated hallmark of Jones’s work, and especially prevalent in Remnants. This is readily understood even in the consideration of the series title: the OED reveals the word to mean all of the following: “a small remaining quantity of something,” “a surviving trace,” or “A part or quantity that is left after the greater part has been used, removed, or destroyed.” In his use of them, the etchings themselves become a “remnant” — a literal trace of the racist, America-first, genocidal and xenophobic past-that-still-exists-in-the-present regarding the legacy of our post-colonial thinking. The etchings become a ghost or a vesper hovering just above the surface of things historic but also of the mundane and of the now. At times they are very visibly perceptible and at others they seem to literally blend into the carpet’s background, as in “They Watched Over Us,” or “Civilized.”
Beyond the literal scratching of image onto glass, Jones is interested in another kind of trace: the shadows cast from the etching onto the linen or velvet backing in the frame. With careful lighting, the shadows on the glass become a reification of this idea of a remnant, literally: a trace upon a trace. Lastly, the perspective shifts that Jones employs stylistically here creates one last layer of significance: the etchings paired with or even on top of the carpets create the reading of the background as foreground and the foreground as background; implying that each share prominence and contribute something vital to the understanding of the other. Meaning woven into meaning; the parts combining to make something other than the whole.
There are other contemporary uses of historical documents and illustrations used as source material for a revised or re-framed understanding of a commonly accepted narrative: Kara Walker’s Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated) comes readily to mind. Walker’s motive has been described as one of “misrepresenting misrepresentations,” and it is tempting to see the same things occurring in Jones’s Remnants series. But succumbing to that temptation would be a misreading of his larger artistic project; the place from which each artist makes comes from a radically different orientation.
“Mommy makes mean art,” was a judgement that Walker’s daughter Octavia, then aged 4, levied on her mother’s work, and it’s a sentiment that runs true to the visceral experience a viewer has to encountering it, in any form or context. Whether installation, 2-D work or film, Walker very much intends to control the viewer’s experience of her work. My respect and admiration of her vision and execution places her squarely on my count-on-one-hand list of most thrilling and complex contemporary artists. But my experience of her is marked by a very felt sameness of, oddly, extreme feeling: I feel like I am reliving the many extremes she imbued with the making of a piece when looking at her work, as well as feeling extremes in my own reactions and responses to those. There is defensiveness in those responses, compounded by a defensiveness at my defensiveness. The sameness that I refer to that is there from work to work exists because I know that she intends or expects me to feel that succession of contrary emotions, and I am left both resenting the expectation and the subsequent fulfillment of that expectation. This is all part and parcel of the emotional roller-coaster ride that is to experience a Kara Walker work.
In an interview, Jones has said:
Traditionally as a Ho-Chunk, I was taught to have good thoughts while making a physical handmade object. There is a certain amount of spirituality or aura that comes with working with your hands that is imbued within the object. How does one get that in 1/60th of a second while taking a photograph?
While his question there may have been rhetorical, I read it as a situation of the challenge he poses to himself with each work that he makes, each series that he conceives. It is a challenge I believe that he rises to each time.
Tom Jones’s work, especially here with Remnants, makes me feel complicit and empathetic at the same time. I don’t feel any sense of a sneaky one-upping, or a sense of having the tables turned on me, or of him making work whose intention is to do anything to me. This felt difference comes, I contend, from the place of making itself for each artist. Kara Walker’s work tells me that my thinking is wrong. And then tells me what to think and how to feel about that. Jones’s work does not order me around, but gestures to an open chair at a table where the artist is seated, and asks me to sit down and talk about it with him. One is an indictment, another an invitation.
Tom Jones is an artist, curator, writer, and educator. He is a Professor of Photography at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He received a Master of Fine Arts in Photography and a Master of Arts in Museum Studies from Columbia College in Chicago, Illinois.
Jones’ artwork is a commentary on American Indian identity, experience and perception. He is examining how American Indian culture is represented through popular culture and raises questions about these depictions of identity by non-natives and Natives alike. He continues to work on an ongoing photographic essay on the contemporary life of his tribe, the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin.
Jones co-authored the book “People of the Big Voice, Photographs of Ho-Chunk Families by Charles Van Schaick, 1879–1943.” He is also the co-curator for the exhibition “For a Love of His People: The Photography of Horace Poolaw” at the National Museum of the American Indian. His artwork is in numerous private and public collections, most notably: The National Museum of the American Indian, Polaroid Corporation, Sprint Corporation, The Chazen Museum of Art, The Nerman Museum, The Minneapolis Institute of Art, The Museum of Contemporary of Native Arts, Museum of Wisconsin Art and Microsoft.
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