As a clarification and "not so much as an apology

As a Clarification and "Not So Much as an Apology."

Anthony Elms

"Insecure prick?" is the first thing you think when you meet Chuck Jones. Back up a moment–you see I like Chuck–Chuck and I share little bits and pieces back and forth. That’s one of two things Chuck does real well. He shares things. The other thing he does real well is wallow in things. If there is one type of person the world is sorely lacking these days, it is generous wallowers. So first I offer a simple thanks to Chuck Jones.

What is it he generously wallows in? Sounds, images, slogans, obsessions, desires, embarrassments, recipes, carvings, fidget toys, baubles, buttons, whatnots and whatsits. He gives even if you don’t ask (check out his website, His manner of sharing is straightforward and cheap with quick throwaway gestures; the kind delivery one expects from a self-paying subscriber of both Wired and Jane.

The newest works, paintings by any other name, are unsparing in their sparkling conglomeration. Circular and executed on abandoned remnants of plywood, the works’ dizzying accumulation–rather than collection–of images and texts explode with all the glee conveyed in an orgy of glitter. The images, a variety of simple patterns and representations (flowers, houses, spirals, plaids) and texts (self-esteem maxims, perverse proverbs, analogies) are not of one kind, so much as of one energy. Aesthetically these paintings reach back not to a prior time or era, but to a prior knowledge level. The end result is somewhere between cake decoration and greeting card design, desiring to rest at a level Chuck describes as a junior high school level of aesthetic complexity. Which really doesn’t do them justice, but does lead us to the monsters.

Laminated amorphous shapes cut from magazines and mailbox advertisements with details sketched out in iridescent crayon; Chuck’s monsters certainly aren’t from the more acceptable beastly lexicon of werewolves, dragons and aliens. Still, anyone who spent early years either inventing monsters or terrified by their possible existence will recognize these things immediately. Legless and armless blobs with horns and teeth, cute but not huggable, they are germ-like creatures with family resemblances to nothing except Muppets with defects, the Smog Monster, or the single cell creatures thriving in the freshly born oceans of the Field Museum’s child-friendly introduction to evolution. These are not the first monsters Chuck has worked with; a short list of their counterparts in past works include his cupid and elephant (the less said the better), Burpo, Forky and Socky, J. Edgar Hoover, and Trent Lott. Chuck often uses such creatures because society needs monsters to locate the borders between acceptable behavior and/or biology, and the unacceptable variances. Monsters threaten us because they disrupt our notions of pure, properly behaving and uncontaminated species-specificity. Which pretty nicely sums up everything Chuck is and does.

Chuck’s favorite manner of speaking, and provoking reactions, is public address, often of the political variety. The open emotions elicited from, and direct address of, his self-generated political buttons, alternate state anthems, PSAs, and "choice" bumper stickers require you to take a side. Are you patriotic or not? Like the current administration or not? Support choice? Or "choice"? Critical distance does not exist in these propositions, they directly confront the viewer’s beliefs.

Should I begin speaking about the uncanny here? Quote Freud? Discuss strategies for undermining the conventions of information design or political rhetoric? No, his use of monsters, glitter, and direct verbal address keeps us in a place where definition and streamlined focus are in short supply, having been replaced by personal reaction. The constantly replenished stock of earnestness and impassioned belief that keeps social conflicts unexamined offers Chuck’s works a steady income. Most work reflective of popular culture requires a distance or removal, or at the least certainly doesn’t operate analogous to the original form; Chuck on the other hand is potentially more successful if considered at a state fair or on the back of a car. He welcomes the tacky, happily cranking the volume on everything paltry in the world to a louder level than the original.

When I say tacky I do not mean kitsch, for the art world loves to flirt with kitsch, but the art world has not fallen far from Clement Greenberg’s tree. Conventional practice preserves the opposite of art–that which is subject to continued inversion through critique and/or investigation–as kitsch. Surprisingly, the items Greenberg defined as kitsch, by and large the same items artists rework into backless designs: sunsets, flowers, cheesecake, pop music, magazine covers, etc., are continually utilized for "creating commentary" to "investigate our culture." The investigative stance demands that both kitsch, or pop culture forms, and art forms, are used at a remove so the producer can have their cake and eat it–getting points for being cool enough to pick the subject matter and the frame, but not involved enough with the forms for the viewer to confuse the artist for a true-blooded practitioner. We used to call this slumming. In this relationship it is always the gallery or the museum that dirties the art, elevating the object to high society, allowing the artist to claim shrugged indifference. So it may be true that kitsch on the surface is the opposite of art and yet also accepted by art, it really doesn’t threaten art, nor has it been accepted on equal footing. To update what Greenberg stated toward the end of "The Avant-Garde and Kitsch", all talk of art for the masses is still nothing but demagogy.

Here’s where Chuck Jones comes into the frame. He doesn’t tease. Currently, contemporary art is obsessed with naughty little sex scenes, odes to classic rock, and tacky decor–while patting itself on the back for its adeptness at dressing down–meanwhile, Chuck is getting dirty. He’s learning traits and techniques to spill his guts in every manner imaginable. An investigation between high and low forms doesn’t interest Chuck because that would require slowing down long enough to determine where the forms he uses come from and to guarantee he picks the right ones. He doesn’t want to be a therapist for forms, and besides, the art world doesn’t feel the need for a therapist. It long ago resolved its relationship to kitsch; it pretends to love pop culture, jealously looking down from on top critically, while siphoning some of the reflected glam. This creates enough investment to be on magazine covers, a weekend dj or rock band, and a cloy lover of melodrama and sunsets. This ironic arm’s length mutual funds-style investment with kitsch allows the art world to disregard the existence of craft. A frank discussion of craft would not allow the art world to continue to tiptoe around notions of class in society. Recognizing the relationship between the different types of culture as they breakdown by class would require one to first identify which class one belongs to, and then focus on the crafts that contribute to the aesthetic preferences of the distinct classes. This would require a lack of decorum as well as admitting the depth to which every class has its crafts, baubles, and fidget toys. In reality only the techniques and cultural capital differ.

The glitter of Chuck’s recent works is certainly a craft material. To make clear one point of difference between a craft, and art or kitsch: craft doesn’t care to be culture, it is a loose collection of techniques without clear taxonomies. The cultural depths and affects that both art and kitsch desire to provoke are meaningless to craft; but likewise paintings and greeting cards are meaningless without craft. Because craft emphasizes skill and process it is the great commuter train of aesthetics, bridging the boroughs of fine art, kitsch, folk, upper, lower, young and old. The presence of craft does not define an item’s class, it is the methodology for attaining the form, a means to an end. Bringing a focus to craft’s loose morphology, not the finished forms, threatens the divisions that define one item as philosophical, another as a pulp entertainment, and a third thing a paperweight.

Chuck’s open embracing of techniques and trains of thought over aesthetic forms obscures any fixed point from where his artistic vision and humor might locate itself. Likewise the readymade tendencies of political sloganeering used by Chuck generate personal responses, without clearly delineating his personal relationship to them, nor what it is he is asking of us. His objects exist in a place where their conceptual taxonomy is too dirtied to ensure a clear agenda. Threatening because they are impure and lacking a remove, the modes of address and types of form he uses emphatically place the viewer in connection with them. When he uses craft techniques to polish coconuts into fidget toys or create glittered panels he collapses the distance that allows disinterested or ironic judgment. And he avoids the distanced gaze of nostalgia by not periodizing his materials in the past. Everything he does is today. With current trends, tools, slogans and forms.

If indeed his work is about anything, it is embracing everything regarded as the needless, or ugly noise of our culture. Except that the word "about" makes something a subject. And that’s not it. Chuck is what is ugly in our culture. As Randall Pants puts it: "He is ugly with love in a 100 miles an hour kind of way." Chuck speaks with the other remaindered voices in our heads that are generally left out of the art world because they make us vulnerable. They put us in identification with our beliefs, tastes and class distinctions, thereby allowing us to be judged by, or identified with, others.

In short, we do not know what he is up to. He shows familiarity with culture’s forms and techniques that impose upon all classes, but no class wants to claim the methods. These things keep Chuck busy. So lighten up, he’s got a reason to be insecure.