One of my first impressions of Stewart Jones is a lasting vision of his black eyes darting up at me with a mixture of fear and horror, his face twisting in shock after a simple question. As it turns out, the milk at the Drake was particularly salty that morning and I soon came to realize throughout our conversation that Jones epitomizes the laid back Canadian cottager our country is famous for.
Born in Kingston, Ontario, Jones has called Toronto home for nearly 20 years. In his paintings, he pays homage to his adopted hometown in a way that only someone imported here from elsewhere could- he looks up. I’ve heard it said before that you can spot a tourist in Toronto because they are the only ones looking up. Predictably, Jones’ fellow Torontonians often fall in love with his work as it gives them a new way to experience our sometimes drab metropolitan surroundings.
His approach to painting is heavily influenced by his work as a graphic artist and animator. His focus rests on the primary artistic concepts of composition and proportion and relies on these rules in his gradual shift towards the boundaries of abstraction. His ever-flattening skies, divided into simple shapes by Toronto’s ubiquitous streetcar cables are used as a vehicle to play with light and colour. Using unashamed brush strokes and vivid complementary colours, Jones follows in the tradition of landscape painting Canadian art is so painfully famous for. Vivid oranges, reminiscent of Tom Thomson, show up as flashes in skies, streets, buildings, crossing cable lines. Unlike the Group of Seven, who escaped Toronto to paint the wilds of the north, Jones paints the beauty he absorbs from his downtown neighbourhood.
While he is insistent that he is painting the urban environment, it seems as though his preoccupation with light and shadows and the resulting play of richly spontaneous colours layered throughout his work are simply innuendoes to the lost natural history beneath our paved cityscape. These vibrant accusations easily set a stage for conversations about our limited relationships with the natural world. In some pieces, Jones starts these conversation by changing the names on street signs or storefronts.
What’s surprising about this, after talking to Jones, is that these allusions to the natural world and its pressing issues of sufferance are not even more prominent in his work. We didn’t talk politics, but I think I can guess to whom Jones casts his vote. The artist is a passionate supporter of worker’s rights and environmental causes. Jones’ professional partnerships attest to his strong interest in these types of issues. He takes pride in being Canadian songtress Sarah Harmer’s commercial artist, herself a fervent protector of the Niagara Escarpment. He is also a member of the artist collective City Field North Shore (CFNS), a group touted as the Broken Social Scene of the art world. Now in its fourth year, each of the four artists involved in the collective paint a series focusing on one aspect of the Canadian landscape. The exhibition runs yearly in Toronto to raise awareness for Lake Ontario Waterkeeper, an organization that conducts research and advocacy initiatives to protect the quality of the water in Lake Ontario. Watch for more detailed coverage of this exhibition in December.
Stewart Jones’ is exhibiting at Gallery 129 Ossington until September 25, 2010. Visit the opening next Thursday, September 9, 2010. Also, if you missed the chance to buy some of his work off-price at AWOL’s annual Square Foot show, try visiting Jones at the Artist Project at the CNE this March.