A few days before the installation of his traveling retrospective (curated by Sandra Firmin and Julie Joyce, which will be on view at the University of Buffalo Galleries, NY till Dec. 17th, the Luckman Gallery at Cal State, LA from March 24, 2007 through May 19, 2007, and the Henry Gallery at the University of Washington, Seattle, WA from Sep. 29, 2007 through Dec. 31, 2007) Kim Jones, the celebrated performance artist, paid a visit to the Rail’s headquarters to talk about his life and work.
Stephen Maine (Rail): Could you begin with the earliest work in the show? How far back were they made?
Kim Jones: There’re a couple of drawings that I did around 1957 or 1958, when I was a teenager; thirteen or fourteen.
Rail: Did the experience of being confined to a wheelchair in your childhood have some significance to your artistic formation?
Jones: I had a disease called Perthes, which is like polio, in both of my hips. I was in traction for a few months in the hospital, then in a wheelchair for three years, from age seven to ten. I couldn’t walk, so I had to wear leg braces. Because of that condition I had to develop an alternative world, which was drawing and making little figures out of clay, where I could have some control over my activities. Most of them were cartoons but some were early war drawings.
Rail: When did your formal education in art begin?
Jones: I took art classes in junior high school and high school. I also went to drawing from life classes every Saturday at the Art Center School, where I earned a scholarship for one semester, and to the summer class at the Art Center School. I didn’t like the program because it was too strict. I got another scholarship to the San Francisco Art Academy for a summer in 1963. After that, I came back to L.A. and went to Chouinard from 1964 to ’66.
Rail: Which later became CalArts.
Jones: Right. It became CalArts after I went into the service from ’66 to ’69, in the U.S. Marine Corps. I graduated in ’71 with my BFA and then I went to Otis where I got my MFA in ’73.
Rail: That’s where you studied with Lowell Darling and Miles Forst?
Jones: Yes. They were both my mentors. At that time, Otis was divided between the conservative and more conceptual art teachers. I gave up painting in 1972 with their encouragement and I started experimenting with unconventional materials. At the same time, through my reading of Avalanche magazine, I became much more aware of performance and installation: Vito Acconci, Chris Burden, Bruce Nauman, and other artists of that group. In addition, I was aware of the work of Bruce Conner, Ed Kienholz, Eva Hesse. But personally I was more interested in Vito Acconci and materially I identified more with Eva Hesse.
Rail: That’s when your transition from painting and sculpture to performance began to take a form where you physically attached sculpture or sculptural elements to your body. Was there a dialogue that you had with other artists from the performance art scene in L.A. at that time?
Jones: Well, in ’75 I met Scott Grieger, Barbara Burden, and Marilyn Nix, through my former teacher at Otis, Miles Forst. I was doing performances pretty much on the street in Venice, and they saw my work, so they asked me to do a performance with them. Through Scott and Barbara I got to know Chris Burden (Barbara was Chris’ ex-wife and at that time she was living with Scott Grieger). So, sure, there was strong support among other artists that I came to know.
Rail: Were you thinking of yourself as a moving sculpture from the outset?
Jones: Well, I was aware that I was taking the sculpture out of the static pedestal, something that Richard Serra had done by the late 1960s (in fact, when I came to New York in 1982 I worked for Richard for a couple of years as an assistant and he was very supportive of me and my work), or off the wall or off the floor, and putting it on a human body; mine.
Rail: There’s a transformation that happens when you put something on—like any kind of costume—it broadcasts something about yourself.
Jones: Absolutely. You can tell a man or a woman by the suit that he or she wears. Whether you have long hair, short hair, whether you have a nice jacket or a crummy jacket. What you wear will define your appearance. To me, I think of them as a form of sculpture. At any rate, all of that developed into the so-called Mudman. It works in a different ways. For one thing, because I’m not a large man, it makes me larger. And it makes me scarier because I’m more threatening looking with all the sticks and mud and sometimes shit attached and put on my whole body. But also it kind of cripples me in a certain way; for one thing, I can’t see very well since my face is covered with panty hose and I can’t move swiftly because I have this heavy and awkward structure on me.
Rail: It makes you strong and vulnerable at the same time.
Jones: Yes. I’m interested in that relationship as a contradiction.
Rail: But you had said that Mudman is comfortable with himself. I mean once he is inside of his structure.
Jones: But that all depends on my mood. When I’m in the midst of my performance, I get kind of spaced out and it’s almost like taking drugs. I’m literally removed from the world outside of me.
Rail: That’s the sole reason why artists do what they do: to experience that transcendence. I wonder if that relates at all to your previous experience in Vietnam, particularly when you were stationed in Dong Ha, very close to the DMZ.
Jones: No, it has very little to do with that. That’s the misconception that some viewers, who are aware of my history, have of my work.
Rail: So the use of mud has another purpose materially?
Jones: Yes. All the performances on the street of Venice, Santa Monica in 1974 didn’t include mud, I just had the structure on me. But in the following year I started putting mud all over my body because it made me look more like a total sculpture.
Rail: A unifying patina.
Jones: Right. In October of ’75 I did the first long performance. Before that they were only a few hours. It was sponsored by a Neo-Dada/Fluxus gallery in L.A. It was from sunrise to sunset on Mt. Pinos, a condor observation site. I spent the day walking around and talking to bird watchers or just people walking around the mountain.
Rail: So people did react to you in a relatively friendly way?
Jones: It all depends. Some would freak out if my face is covered with panty hose. But when I raise it and they can see my face, they would calm down. Others asked me all kinds of questions, most commonly, are you getting paid for this, or are you advertising something? Is this a political act? And so on. One person, when I was doing another piece later in New York, asked me if I wanted to go to a party with her. In other words, I would make up stuff according to different situations.
Rail: You often insist that your work has little to do with Vietnam, but what about the rat piece?
Jones: The rat piece was one of the few pieces I did that has a direct relationship to Vietnam. It initially got started as a design project in 1972 when I was at Otis. That was when the whole faculty got very upset with me and they wanted to kick me out. The Dean wrote me a letter saying that if I wanted to continue doing this I would have to do it at another institution. But Miles and Lowell stepped up and defended the project. Basically, what I did was I burned some rats to death in the sculpture garden and filmed it with a little Super 8 camera. Then later, Frank Brown, whom I met through Lowell Darling, offered to let me do it at Cal-State in L.A. That’s when I did the more or less official rat piece. I went out and I bought three male rats and as part of the performance I burned them to death. There was a lot of trouble and controversy surrounding that piece at well.
Rail: I’m trying to measure the extent to which the audience is complicit in the burning.
Jones: First of all, the whole performance lasted from 20 to 30 minutes. Half of the audience left, half stayed. Some did get very disturbed by it, and one woman ran out screaming “you’re sick, you’re sick!” I’d have done it even if one or two people were in the audience.
Rail: That brings to mind the destruction-in-art theme that was going through performance at the time, but were you aware of the visibility of the Viennese Actionists of the decade before?
Jones: Well, I read about it in Avalanche magazine, published by Willoughby Sharp and Liza Bear, which only existed between 1970 and 1976, particularly about the Destruction Art Symposium that was held in London in 1966. Robert Hughes also wrote about Herman Nitsch, Otto Mühl, and Gunter Brüs in Time Magazine in 1972.
Rail: Allegedly Pete Townsend attended that symposium and shortly thereafter started smashing his guitar at the end of every Who concert. 1976 was also the year of your Wilshire walk.
Jones: January 28th 1976, it was also my birthday. First, I did a 12-hour piece from sunrise to sunset; then a week later, on February 4th, I did another one from sunset to sunrise, through the night. Wilshire Blvd. begins in downtown L.A. I walked a few miles an hour. There are slight hills in certain parts, but it’s mostly flat. That piece was sponsored by a group called Carp that was run by Barbara Burden. They actually sponsor a lot of other well-known artists, such as: Alexis Smith, Bruce Nauman. So I felt honored that they had invited me.
Rail: You did a performance in 1978 called Grandfather Piece at the Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art, where you essentially trapped the audience in the room by blocking the exit with your structure.
Jones: Yeah. It’s a long story. But it all began with stories of my two grandfathers. First, my grandfather on my father’s side was hit by a bomb in the first World War. As a result, he got some sort of nerve disease and eventually they had to cut off his arms and legs up to the knees and elbows. He seemed perfectly happy to me. I realized later that it was because he was always taking morphine for the pain. All through the ’30s he always had money from the government. He got a silver star. Secondly, my grandfather on my mother’s side was murdered in Texas by eight people, nine months before I was born, in April of ’43. So in this performance, I covered myself in mud and sticks and I explained the story to the audience. I had these eight beer cans in front of them, and I had a big machete that I brought with me from Vietnam, and I had a little jar and I reached in the jar and I pulled out some of my own shit, and I smeared my shit over my body, over the mud. I began cursing and chopping up the beer cans with the machete. So it was very violent but I was very contained in my own area. After I finished chopping them up, eight beer cans representing the eight people that killed my grandfather on my mother’s side, I approached the audience. I was covered in mud and shit. The people in the front row smelled it first and the people in the back row didn’t realize what was going on. I asked if I could put my arms around them and one lady gave me her hand, so she got a hand full of shit. And this other guy said “sure” so I put my arms around him and pulled him out of the audience like we were dancing. I turned around and let him go so that he was facing the audience and I walked out the door. The door was just big enough for a person to walk through, but it wasn’t big enough for my structure. As I walked out the door, I let loose of my structure and left it blocking the door. The people were stuck in there with the smell of beer, shit, and mud. That was it, until they figured out they could just move the structure and they did that after about a minute.
Rail: They stopped waiting for your curtain call and got out of there.
Jones: The only time I ever came close to a confrontation with the viewer was with a piece that I did with Paul McCarthy and Rachel Rosenthal in Chicago. Paul did a penis painting where he painted with his penis on the wall. A line of paint. I was stabbing the wall with this knife, sort of claiming the territory. There were people lined up against the wall, watching the performance. This one guy had this nice white shirt, and he was sort of cocky. As I was moving along I knew he wasn’t going to move because he was kind of smirking at me. So I put the knife in my other hand and as I approached him I gave him a hard shove against his chest, so there was this big mud handprint on him. He was kind of surprised and upset. I felt the tension but that was it.
Rail: Are the performances therapeutic, cathartic, for you or for the audience?
Jones: I have no idea about the audience. When I do a piece it’s very exhausting. Right before I do it I’m almost always thinking, why the fuck am I doing this again? Because it is so exhausting. It may be therapeutic to the audience but I don’t think it’s therapeutic for me, and I have no intention of my work being a kind of therapy for me or anyone else.
Rail: So Joseph Beuys’ idea of curing social ills doesn’t interest you.
Jones: No! I just try to be as real as I possibly can. I’m definitely fooling myself if I think I’m curing anyone, because I’m not. I’m not a doctor of any kind. I think I’d make a lousy doctor.
Rail: You said the war drawing got started in your childhood, but when did it begin to take a greater presence?
Jones: As I said earlier, it began as a secret game that I played as a child, which primarily derived from children’s books with labyrinths or mazes where you would find treasure. I first showed the war drawing as art at LAICA (Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Arts). They had this store window on 9th Street where they would invite artists to make an installation, and that’s where I did “Plant Wars.” I covered the walls with paper and I made war drawings on the walls, and then I covered the floor with mud and sculptures and sticks. I did performances in there and I had it for about a month or so. Then I took the war drawings down after I was finished and I didn’t show them to anybody after that. Not until I started showing them at the Corence Monk Gallery in 1990 and people started to buy them. But as a whole, I treat the war drawings as a continuous game between x’s and dots. Like war itself, it never ends.
Rail: So it is constantly being revised. Has there been a case where a collector would allow you to work more on the drawing?
Jones: One time it did happen. Exit Art bought a big drawing and five years later they included it in a show called Monumental Drawings. I asked them if I could draw on it again. And they said yes. So I went back in and erased a part of it and added some new elements. I actually think of them as a form of Process art.
Rail: So you don’t see them as aerial views of battlegrounds?
Jones: There is a novel called Flatland, by Edwin Abbott, a mathematician, and it’s about this two-dimensional world that’s inhabited by triangles and squares and circles. So I try to use that similar concept to describe the war drawings. I build fortresses or cities, and the outside world is a maze or a labyrinth, and there are lakes and oceans and rivers. And the pieces move around: I’ll draw ten tanks, and then I’ll erase them and I redraw them to show that they’re moving around, or if they’re killed they’re erased.
Rail: Perhaps it’s slightly different in terms of time and configuration but that idiom comes up again in the work that you did for your last show at Pierogi, in 2005, called “War Paint.” As you said before, the costumes that people wear are, to you, a form of sculpture. So that’s how the progression from the war drawings to war paint on the jackets took place?
Jones: Yes. They’re essentially painted sculptures. They are done with ink over acrylic ground instead of pencil, so it would take a lot longer to do each one because I’d have to allow the paint to dry between layers, though they’re not as complex as the war drawings.
Rail: Even when it’s a garment like that, a jacket or shirt, and not physically as big or intimidating as the structures, it still suggests that you’re donning a burden.
Jones: It’s either a burden or it’s protection. It’s a live sculpture.
Rail: You were included in an important show called Out of Actions, at LA MOCA, curated by Paul Schimmel, in 1998. And a year later you had a one-person show at the John Weber gallery. Can you recall your impressions of the two?
Jones: For Out of Actions I showed parts of a videotape from the rat piece, along with one of my sculptures, Ratdog. The show at John Weber in 1999 was called A Cripple in the Right Way May Beat a Racer in the Wrong One, which is a quote from Francis Bacon. I showed several sculptures, old sculptures that I’d attached to tricycles and toys and painted over. I first made them around 1972, ’73 and ’74. These sculptures were attached to the wall with drawn lines behind them, so they looked like they were racing around the wall. It’s the same thing as the works that I’ve been showing at Pierogi, in the last few years.
Rail: So again we get into this concept about reusing and revising, of your own work as well as work by other people. The piece that you did for Our Grotesque, curated by Rob Storr at Site Santa Fe, was based on an existing grid on the side of the building, left from a previous artist.
Jones: Right. My initial idea was when the piece was up, I would then just add rats to the other artist’s piece, but they said it wouldn’t be a good idea. So when they took his piece down, and all that was left was this grid, what I did was I bought 2,000 black rubber rats that were made in China, and covered the grid with this red cedar wood, and attached rats to each section of the grid. And then there were these red poles, I had them stick out. I think there were nine poles with a bundle of rats at the end of each pole. They were kind of like flags, a series of flags. Rat flags. I had five people with five red cooking stands, dressed in black, cooking hot dogs until they burned, and then just tossing the hot dogs out, up through the grid. So there were these black, burning hot dogs on the pavement during the opening.
Rail: Why hot dogs?
Jones: Well, I think of hot dogs as a symbol of America.
Rail: The Times ran a huge photograph of that piece accompanying their review—front page of the art section, above the fold, in full color.
Jones: That was great.
Rail: How did you get involved with Pierogi?
Jones: I heard about the flat files, so I came in one day to talk to Joe [Armhein], and asked if I could put some of my drawings in them. That’s how we got to know each other initially. Joe took a strong interest in my work in that he made efforts to attend a couple of openings of my shows at John Weber. So when the gallery closed, Joe asked me to show at his gallery. We had our first big show together in 2001.
Rail: What about the performance at the Drawing Center, last winter?
Jones: It wasn’t really Mudman, it was Cottage Cheese Man. I didn’t really feel like putting mud on, so I just thought I’d have cottage cheese.
Rail: This relates to the Site Santa Fe piece because, there again, you were interacting with, and in some sense extending, somebody else’s art.
Jones: That was part of the idea behind that show. Basically, I was drawing on the walls and making my own stuff. It was all these people either making installations connected with the other installations, or actually destroying and changing somebody else’s installation and making it their own, which is what I did, and what other people did, later, with mine. I like that whole idea, where you’re working together, both creating and destroying each other’s work. It was closer to a musical gig, because I was working with two musicians, and these two guys were very good, so they were riffing off me and I was riffing off them.
Rail: There was a distinct sense of collaboration among the three of you, of a very spontaneous, improvisational nature in the performances. Was that a conscious choice from the outset?
Jones: That’s the way that I like to work. We never would rehearse, or think too much beforehand. The first time I did it with Derek Bermel was in Rome in the summer of 2002, around the corner from the American Academy, while I was there as a Prix de Rome recipient. I had sticks on, and Derek and this other musician from Amsterdam made music, and we just sort of riffed off each other. And the second time we did it was at BAM café the following year. The one that you saw at the Drawing Center was the third piece. Actually, the first time I used cottage cheese was in 1980. It was really late at night and I didn’t have time to go out and find mud. It was for this punk magazine called No magazine. Their photographer wanted to take photographs for the magazine’s fashion issue. I went out to a drug store and bought a container of cottage cheese, and I had wrapped-up Kleenex coming out of my nose, and sticks on my head, but I covered my chest and parts of my body with cottage cheese. Later on, we met up with a bunch of punk people under the LA Freeway at four in the morning. I was covered with mud and I gave some structures for them to wear. So they sort of interacted. There’s a really beautiful photograph that was taken with all of us, it looks like a cathedral, but it’s actually under this freeway in LA.
Rail: When and how did the impulse to draw or paint over photographs actually begin?
Jones: As early as 1973 or ‘74. I first started painting over calendar girls from Playboy and various nudist magazines. Then I began to do the same with my Janson art history book. I drew over Andre Mantegna’s St. Sebastian, Michelangelo’s David, Greek temples, added sticks and things to them. I thought it was my way of changing art history into my own. I also did paintings over all sorts of advertisements and so on. To me, the idea was to bring things up to date, making them connected with me.
Rail: So how do you feel about the retrospective, which spans more than 30 years of your work? In other words, do you feel that the different aspects and extensions of your work have a common synthesis as a whole?
Jones: I certainly hope so. But it’s just strange to see things that you did 15 or 20 years ago all in one big space. At the University of Buffalo, the show consists of the downstairs with mostly two-dimensional work, book sculptures, and the upstairs with sculpture. But there’s a timeline going throughout the top floor. It dates roughly from 1953 to 2001. There are photographs of me in my little wheelchair when I was seven, in Vietnam in my early twenties, the whole genesis of mudman, video works, sculpture, war drawings and so on.
Rail: So in a way, in spite of all the conceptual, performing and process-art that informed you when you were in college and thereafter, as you became a full, practicing artist, would you say that, retrospectively speaking, your work has a strong autobiographical narration to it?
Jones: Oh yeah. It’s all about what happened and is still going on in my life. One of the things that I realize about myself is that I’m 62 now, and just how my body has changed over the years in accordance with the works is very close to how I see myself in the world.
Rail: What’s next?
Jones: I have no idea.
STEPHEN MAINE is an artist and critic based in Brooklyn, New York.