Jones By Anthony Bannon

Thursday, November 2, 2017

M. Henry Jones, with good reason, calls himself a visual pioneer. He is being modest, and, as always, honest.

Others, many of them estimables in the arts, have other ways of describing the creative veteran of the East Village.  It has been said that:

M. Henry Jones is the Leonardo of the Camera, and if by that it is meant that he applies virtually every approach to using virtually every class of camera, this is no exaggeration.

They say that M. Henry Jones is akin to Marcel Duchamp, to Francis Picabia, to Alberto Giacometti, and to other masters of the 20th century. Jones was born in 1957.

And it has been said that he is a “new artworld rebel.”

M. Henry Jones is “the Mad Art Scientist of the East Village,” this from a headline for Robert Carrithers’ “New York Portraits,” an on-line posting.

And, of course, he is termed “a breath of fresh air.”

Jones was a legend in grade school, when he made large and friendly hippo sculptures, and people marveled at how he so easily transform a blob of clay, and then he made an 8mm animation about his hippo, and the talent held through high school and then through college at School of the Visual Arts. Before he graduated from a high school in Wilson, NY near Lake Ontario and about 40 miles from Buffalo, he had managed an artist festival which summoned the soon-to-be superstars of the Pictures Generation (Robert Longo, Cindy Sherman, Charles Clough, Diane Bertolo, Michael Zwack and Nancy Dwyer, who had organized in 1974 .one of the first artist run galleries, called Hallwalls). They did absolutely unheard-of installations. Word went out through apple country and the fishing community and Buffalo. About 3,000 showed up. I did. Jones was impressive. He couldn’t get enough.  His science teacher was Rae Tyson, who was an artist using Corten steel while in charge of managing the visiting artist program at Artpark in Lewiston, NY, not far away. He recruited Jones out of 11th grade to be an artists’ assistant. He made a reputation quickly. Nancy Holt, Paul Sharits, Dennis Oppenheim, all were eager to work with M. Henry. He was bright, zealous and tireless.  I asked him to help me make a film during my residency, and he did sound and changed reels as we rode in a helicopter down the face of Niagara Falls and down the river, under at least one bridge, past the park to the old fort at Youngstown. He was right on, as an 11th grader.

 Now Jones has become, after four decades in the East Village, a mentor to emerging artists fascinated to learn the legacy of an edgy Village culture, a community accepting for more than four centuries the creative hard scramble of immigrants who tested and re-shaped the status quo. In the last century the East Village was home to the Beats and new jazz, followed on by the inter-arts peace and protest of 60s and 70s and the Punk scene. Now, since the emergence of the Underground or Independent Film movement during the last of the 1940s, a persisting new wave of electronic art has prevailed, running through every traditional discipline and staking out some new ones, while gentrification and its powerful engine make change out of the low rents which attracted emerging artists. The East Village has always been a place for coming and going, of people and ideas.  M. Henry (he insists on the M) has made it there since 1976, at first assisting the masters in the rapidly changing arts of new media, especially Harry Smith.

Even as he worked as an artists’ assistant at Artpark Jones had begun to make laborious and amazing film and photographs and hand colored animations. They were monkish, took several years, and were astonishing, memorable. He made one called “Dance Film” featuring his sister going through the fundamental positions. He shot it in 16mm and hand colored the film using Q-Tips and toothpicks, removed frames, and animated the layout. Its charm, in addition to the young dancer, is in the awareness that something is amiss; that this is not an ordinary film. And that point of discovery, the invitation to the viewer to discern - has driven his art from that beginning. This can be done, Jones is saying, and it is fun.

And then Jones took his shows to the East Village.  Almost immediately, he met Harry Smith, an early Beat alchemist, visual artist, film-maker, musicologist, anthropologist and projection technologist. In turn, Smith led Jones into a who’s who in various media, Robert Frank in film and photography; Allen Ginsberg in poetry, photography and song; Jonas Mekas, maestro of independent film, critic and filmmaker; and Jordan Belson, like Smith, an abstract film artist and mystic. Paola Igliori wrote about Smith in a book, “The American Magus: Harry Smith.”  M. Henry Jones, Smith’s studio assistant and soon enough his collaborator, provided key insights to Smith’s mastery. Igliori, in turn, wrote about Jones’ own work, which she declared “groundbreaking.”

Smith was a polymath creator, open to collaborations and good advice, delighting to hear a different take on solutions. Yet he, himself, was often the solution to many who sought him out. Not that he was easy. He had a selective temperament and didn’t suffer charlatans. Though the book about him, “American Magus,” and subsequent film honorifics, a line-up of those he helped enormously make their testimony about an artistic giant. Among them are stories about creating opportunity for Ed Sanders and Tuli Kupferberg to record the Fugs first album and then act as sound editor, and Allen Ginsberg, for whom he did several book jacket designs and helped with his songs (and who in return helped Smith during difficult times). Also, Jonas Mekas, Jordan Belson, Robert Frank, and many others. Smith lived from 1923 to 1991, and spent a good measure of adult time in the renown Chelsea Hotel, Room 731.  He collected rare 78 phonograph records of obscure folk music and the blues, which became a boxed set distributed by Folkways, called Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music.  His films, his soundscapes (recordings of ambient sounds, like the photographer W. Eugene Smith at the nearby Jazz Loft), developed into projections of the colors of fire, wind, and the air; red, green, blue) and his own hand colored abstract film with sound applied. These were sensational installations, like a rock light show on intellectual steroids. Smith was fully of the Beat era, using mind altering drugs while on a search for mystic and hidden truths. For many, he was a light that served as a beacon of illumination into culture and art. Jones and the famed hip hop artist, DJ Spooky, created a light and sound presence, inspired by Smith’s work and using some of it as a baseline for their own. They two travelled the installation around the world for two years, 1998-9.

Jones carried Smith’s light: Robert Carrithers wrote in “New York Portraits 2010,” that Jones is “the resident mad art scientist of the East Village in New York City for over three decades now.”

William Spears in Spears Magazine this year: “In his 50s, Jones is no willful provocateur, merely an artist who has stubbornly gone his own way, managing somehow or other to remain oblivious to the mores of the art world as a game system.”

The range of Jones’ invented tools and concepts stretch from modifications of early 18th century art experiments, then mechanics imminent to the appearance of photography (1839), and then pre-film strategies, before its introductions in1894.  Using devices with now arcane names, Jones continues to spin pictures on rotating devices to produce an illusion of motion, often realized into 3-D, or digitally, or in analog format, where it all began with the phenaskistoscope, where he can make a pig turn into an alien.  Jones’ work broke into the New York spotlight in 1979, out of the culture of the heady punk bars, such as CBGB, Studio 57, and Max’s Kansas City.

But it was the intensive work jones created with others that built his reputation, most remarkably with a strobe flicker film with Fleshtones, inspired in measure by the techniques his friend Paul Sharits had introduced – rapid-fire short cuts in film which created a flicker effect ramped up to potential seizure levels.  The Fleshtones was a Garage Band that went on to play with James Brown, Bo Diddley, and Chuck Berry, and they joined with Jones on this particularly monkish project, a ground-breaking film (2 ½ minutes long) called “Soul City,” with many film variants and sculpture and singular images. The film used analog tools to provide the inspiration for a later developed digital delivery system and a new style of popular music delivery, particularly the tradition of music videos and its delivery agency, MTV.

 “Soul City” took two years to make, created from nearly 2,000 images of the Fleshtones’ and opening performance. Unlike “Dance Film,” it was shot and colored on 35 mm film, plus almost 2,000 photographs, which were silhouetted around the performers and colored and animated in the flicker-strobe manner.  Jones shot additional film which is used as variations to provide a start to finish look, meandering into music through self-conscious pre-production, then into a flicker film editing and finishing, with a quiet post interlude.  At the heart of most of the Fleshtone variations are those frame grabs of the band members, which were also cutout around each figure to create assemblies with life-sized or smaller figures, each image hand-colored.  Through Jones’ many films and sculpture and animation devices flow quotations to the history of camera and to projected imaging, notably including the practice of the silhouette, reaching as far back in time to the Etruscan Vases, and in popular culture, to the 18th century French Minister of Finance Etienne de Silhouette, whose restrained fiscal policies encouraged creation of the unadorned cutout shadow image and, perhaps, parlor games for the Minister’s parties.  Jones’ singular photos of the musicians are animated against variously colored background, quotations to Sharits. Remarkably, these images and film have lived a long and various life since 1979, growing into tee-shirts, appearing life-sized, influencing the creation of Rock Video and referenced in alternative culture books as a game-changer.

 The film, quickly after release, was shown underground in Washington, when the Washington Project for the Arts was considered underground, and Blondie and her group, the Dead Boys, Mark Miller, the Ramones and a bunch of others rented a bus for the party. Upon return to The City, it was shown in the Museum of Holography, since its effects gave a 3-D look. Fittingly, “Soul City” is a cover to a Lou Reed song. A selection of its images is offered in Stuart Bulger’s Gallery selection in Toronto, acquired with Laurence Miller Gallery in New York, and were recently featured in an Anthology Film Archive Jones presentation.

People at Anthology lined up to say words of praise about Jones. He had jumpstarted digital as a powerful and varied image-making tool.  Analog was called Jurassic by contrast to what digital could offer.  Suddenly the art world was ready for what the outsiders, electronic image-makers, could offer the mainstream.  The famous British-American critic Anthony Haden-Guest wrote about these “new art world rebels.” He said about Jones that his “work seems like a breath of fresh air in an art world more interested in cookie-cutter product than idiosyncratic creation. Jones’ genius is that he is a tech artist whose temperament belongs to the Jurassic age before digital media.”  Haden Guest is an Emmy award winner who often writes in the New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Rolling Stones.  His most recent book is “The Real Life of the Culture World.”

The East Village was a hot bed for experiment, establishing the famed zines and newspapers, some created by friends who also had made a mark in Buffalo, such as Ishmael Reed, who established the East Village Other, with Spain Rodriguez and others, and Ed Sander’s Peace Eye Book Store and “Fuck You: A Journal of the Arts.”  The Fillmore East, the iconic rock concert hall, was nearby, and the Talking Heads, Madonna, Nick Zed, Blondie and Patti Smith lived and performed in the neighborhood.  ABC No Rio was the artist run gallery of choice, likewise Jonas Mekas’ Anthology Film Archive, and M. Henry Jones Snakemonkey Studio and laboratory, still a favorite drop in site, located in a storefront on 10th Street between Avenues C and D.   

Jones made straight and funky portraits of the scene, including of actor Richard Edson, director Jim Jarmusch, artist Kenny Scharf, and the Zantees. He collaborated with Harry Smith from another era and D.J. Spooky, Keith Haring and Tim Rollins from ours. His work has been shown at the Museum of Modern Art, the British Film Institute, The Walker Arts Center and the American Film Institute, among many others.  Futurist Buckminster Fuller, MIT photo guru Dr. Harold Edgerton, and the Globus Brother’s lenticular lens studio are among the many who have praised and cited Jones’ work.

“What is it about your work?” I asked him. “It is important to act as a 12-year-old,” Jones responded. “If that is not transgressive; it is not underground. It has to be innocent to threaten the status quo by doing something. What? Acting like a 12-year-old.”

“Henry’s show bursts to life.  It engages the whole gallery in dazzle,” said Don Metz, Center associate director and director of programming, who organized Jones’ installation at The Center.

Jones added another story. It goes like this: While walking home from school in the first grade after an Easter Egg Hunt, Henry was examining his sugar egg given to his class, and he discovered a peep hole, revealing scores of tiny bunnies inside, cut out of paper and placed in a forced perspective. “It was the first time that I actually realized that you could create a world that was different than the one that surrounds us,” recalled Jones. So, by the 5th grade, Jones was making sculpture of hippos, by the 7th grade he used them in Film Club to do animated films. Then, as an 11th grader in Western New York he was recruited to serve as an artists’ assistant at Artpark.

Jones has been a visual pioneer. He also played with stereo cameras, an early trope in photography that lasted from mid -19th to mid- 20th centuries, and while in college at School of the Visual Arts he made one to accept a 4x5 sheet film. Now he is hooked on Fly’s Eye photography, where he fragments reality into thousands of images and re-integrates the fractal pieces to present movement and depth. The Fly Eye has been a little remembered variation on lenticular strips of several images first invented in 1692 to give an illusion of movement within a painting and adapted for photography in the late 19th century. Jones brought The Fish Eye back to attention with his surreal, whimsical vision and portraits of artists, presented in stereo. The Fish Eye was invented in 1908 by Gabriel Lippman, who subsequently received a Nobel Prize for his invention.

The dazzle the show of Jones’ work that curator Tom Holt installed at the Burchfield Penney Art Center at Buffalo State College anchors in a history forgotten by most. Jones takes what must have been an amazement – an optical illusion – and created a giant wheel, perhaps within a wheel, of the phenaskistoscope, or a horizontal line up of images viewed inside a cylinder with multiple slits along its side. Spin this horizontal wheel and the pictures viewed through the slits move like a movie, though this so-called zoetrope was invented more than 50 years before motion pictures. Walt Disney used a variation called a praxinoscope, which utilized mirrors, to view test strips of his company’s animations.

At root, these inventions are sophisticated versions of a flip book, or a slideoscope, or rolloscope or kineograph, which is the fancy way of saying flip books. Each are variant that Jones might carry about in his pocket, and on a grand scale yield the much larger wheels which deliver the same magic. And that is M. Henry’s wisdom – to redeem the values of the past and animate the venerable tools with playful visuals from our time. He is introducing new worlds alternative, but drawn from, our own. This is his own form of the cognitive principle called “persistence of vision” in which the eye chemistry holds an image just long enough to be fooled by animation effects.

Jones knows the tempo of this time from the creative heartland of the East Village, where, in voice with his mentor and collaborator, Harry Smith, nothing is off base; everything is possible. Jones, thereby, created a lenticular billboard, animating big space. And he made for television during the late 1980s and into the mid-1990s a now epic series of animations for America’s Best Eyeglass Company, featuring hand drawn animated Ben Franklin, Dracula, Niagara Falls, stunt dancing eye glass girls, and M. Henry himself, rolling out a Herman Snellen Eye Chart with energizing rays sent from contact lenses camouflaged as flying saucers. Other America’s Best animations for national distribution include one with a fanciful Rock Candy Mountain setting, another set underwater with the eye chart delivered by a sting ray fish. In all the animations, the buyer could obtain two six packs of contact lenses or two spectacles plus an exam for $39.99. The stars include Mr. and Mrs. America driving their convertible past a fanciful landscape of rabbits and pacmen and through that underwater sequence, also starring an octopus, amoebas and a  four-armed little headed hydra.

Jones film work, also represented by “Go-Go Girl,” a flicker with a pulsing background, is preserved by Anthology Film Archives as among the iconic American independent films, and others films sponsored by Burger King, Lupus Research, and Andy Warhol Foundation.  “Brand New Cadillac” with the Zantees, is another strobe, clipped frame rock feature with an overlay of melting colors like a Liquid Light Show that backgrounded rock concerts in the 1960s. It was headlined in a Museum of Modern Art screening.

Jones pries open the now deep traditions of photography and film, like his vision into the childhood Easter egg – and the firmament of East Village radical culture to use and cite the forgotten building blocks of media. Hippos were his favorite, but after a while he put wings on them. He fastened the flying hippo to a fishing rod and that made possible the movie with the hippo flying around his bedroom. The film is still in circulation. Then, there’s a book, called “The Three Fertnuckles,” which are egg shaped friendly creatures with big smiles and tiny stumps for legs and hair all over. The book was made in 9th grade, but the Fertnuckle is ever remembered in animations, along with the Slatherpuss, a cuddly dinosaur, for whom a starring role is reserved on a strobe enlightened animating zoetrope.

The wonder of it all. 



Anthony Bannon is director emeritus of the Burchfield Penney Art Center and George Eastman Museum.