Chuck Jones is a towering funny person and a serious artist who investigates hubris, authority and failure through varied dialogues and media. The Comp Magazine recently caught up with Chuck to discuss needlework, why his comedy is compulsive and how the medium is the message and the message is probably funny.
Can we start with a little background? You are from the Washington, D.C. area, studied in Connecticut and at SAIC and UIC in Chicago, and enjoy and excel in teaching. Are there any specific early experiences that directed your attention to making art? Has your events/studies or a specific teacher had an impact on your working practice?
I am from Chevy Chase, Maryland, which is to Washington, D.C. as Oak Park is to Chicago. It’s one of the wealthiest suburbs in the country, and D.C. is white collar town. Chevy Chase is inside the beltway, which is not an idle observation. I think that the D.C. city line should be redrawn out all the way out to the beltway, as it would be a more honest reflection of the emotional reality. I was a screw up in elementary school. You know the kid with peanut butter on his face? I was the peanut butter face kid. After my first year of junior high my parents moved me to The Field School, a quasi hippy, but very rigorous, school, where I did 7th grade for a second time. I had passed but I was too young for my grade to begin with. At Field, I had an excellent Art teacher name Penny Mayer, now Penny Mayer Finnie, who is currently a chocolate maker in Berkley, CA. She was a painter and was an excellent sounding board for all my enthusiasms. I have never been much of a renderer, and, as opposed to most high school Art classes, Penny didn’t focus her classes in rendering still-lifes in pencil. Printing, sculpture, and assemblage were all fair game. Sometimes you just need someone to give you a thumbs up and a little shove. At Connecticut College I had three teachers who had a super impact on my understanding of how and why you should make art but the one everyone should know about is Maureen McCabe. She’s a collage artist who’s work is stunning, She is also just a force. Look her up. Now. Go. Do it.
You have produce artworks through a variety of mediums (sound, drawing, video, sculpture, etc.) on what could be considered as disparate subject matter. How do you select the format you work in? Are there relevant connections between the subject matter you are commenting upon from series-to-series?
I try to work in a few different veins at once, so as I get weary of one I can shift to another. Right now, I’m doing embroidery primarily and these conceptual media pieces every few months or so. The embroidery satisfies a number of artistic and logistic issues for me, (most of which I will get to below in Question #4) but the main one is that as you make it, it exists. In most of my other work (video, books, assorted multiples) I spend hours upon hours putting a piece together on a computer or in notebooks, but when it’s finished, I still have to figure out how I’m going to manifest it in the world. Is this going to be a DVD package with a 2 tone stamp? Am I just going to put it up on Vimeo and link to it on my website (http://www.babygorilla.com)? Is this image going to be best as a .jpg that exists solely on the internet or should I make a series of buttons that I hand out? I make the multiples available for purchase at Fuse-works in New York. They are dealers in multiples and editions in Brooklyn and are the perfect partners for me when I want to make the selling the work part of the art. The most recent piece I give them is a package of therapy work-books with a DVD, a series of buttons and a block of wood that you are supposed to keep handy in case you need to throw it at someones head. The edition before that was mounted pieces of highly polished coconut that should make think of your own death. Before that was a handwritten letter that you could buy for me to send to a friend of yours.
As for subject matter, I’m interested in hubris, authority and failure and how these effect thought and communication. I think that’s what all of my art is about.I see a pervasive absurd humor in much of your work. Is this a correct reading? What role does humor play, if any? Is there a specific project that best illustrates this playful mischievousness?
I used to make work with Eliot Joslin, who I met at UIC. We made work under the name of “Randall Pants.” In 1999 we made a video called ‘Blame It On Cancun’ which I think might be the best piece I have ever made. It’s two dirty socks yelling at each other. One is named Forky and then other is Socky. Forky is a sock with a fork drawn on it. I have to put it up on Vimeo, because the link no longer works on my website. In thIs case, we really really tried to make art that was really funny to us and what we made is a little hard to take (https://vimeo.com/112956989). We shot the video with a $40,000 camera and $5000 dollar lights in front of a blue screen, and you can’t tell at all. We were originally going to chroma key the video over a super cut of Oliver Stone’s “Nixon” where all the scenes of Nixon had been removed. It was going to be called “Forky and Socky in Oliver Stone’s ’Nixon.’” but instead we dropped in in front of footage of Puerto Rico, even though the title says “Cancun.” After a few minutes we introduce a real fork and a large key with the number 4 painted on it. Also, there’s Socky drinking a bottle of Saki. In the case, we really really tried to make it funny and what we made is a little hard to take.
Most of my work is funny. I’m funny. I have made pieces that I didn’t think were funny at all and people thought they were hysterical. While humor and comedy is important to me, it’s a means to an end. I’m not sure that playful mischief is right; that makes the work sound like a puppy, or that I’m winking at the audience. I made a stamp that read “If I’ve been in your house, I’ve peed in your sink.” That was pretty funny, not because those words are especially funny, more because it makes no sense for that to be on a self inking stamp, or for sale.
The only thing that I make that doesn’t turn out funny are pots of homemade soup, which are delicious.
You are currently working in embroidery. Sadly, this medium is often still identified as a “women’s art” (lowercase). What piqued your interest in producing artwork in this format? Can you describe your process and an introduction to the subject matter you are currently investigating?
Embroidery is a very good medium for me for the same reasons that it was labelled as a woman’s art. It’s portable, quiet, and doesn’t smell. I can pick and up and put it down almost any time and it’s cheap. I was introduced to embroidery by Superhero Marci Rae McDade, who is now the Editor of Surface Design Journal. She pointed out that it’s a great art to make when you are a parent, and I am a parent. I get to use the same skill set that I used as a printmaker in terms of layers of color and opacity. I put the pieces together like they are very flat sculptures of drawings, if that makes sense. What’s sad is not that embroidery is labelled as woman’s art, as historically that has been true. What’s sad is that woman’s art is seen as less than, which is bullshit. If Cherie Currie can be a chainsaw carving artist, I can embroider. So I do.
Are there any future projects on the horizon?
I’m working on three embroideries right now. Each is a way of procrastinating from the others. Otherwise my I’m thinking of opening a gallery called “Litter” where I throw the work of artists out of the window of my car. Yesterday I came up with two ridiculous ideas. One is Phil Anselmo from Pantera reading the complete works of Maya Angelo, and Jackie Chan starring in a cooking show version of Ice Castles. I just need to get the funding.
Chuck Jones is probably sitting on his couch right now sewing something rather amusing.
To view addition work by Chuck Jones, please visit: www.babygorilla.com
Interview by Chester Alamo-Costello