It seems the world has never been so personal. We receive daily updates from a variety of sources about friends, family and even previously untouchable celebrities and public figures. There is little distinction between the real world and online social media content. With this mass of personal information being shared, one might start to expect an increased insight into character or engagement with issues of identity. This may be the case in other arenas, but the contemporary art world remains heavily conceptual and we infrequently encounter artwork that is directly autobiographical or self-referential in nature. We seem to prefer our artists one step removed from the real world and most are reticent to share their personal heritage in any direct fashion. It is fair to say that a lot of bad art involves 'over sharing' and drawing upon oneself as a subject bears the threat of egotism.
It comes as some surprise, then, to find an artist like the young Australian Alan Jones whose work exclusively draws upon material of a personal nature and is done so without the slightest of sense of self-importance. In fact, the opposite might be true. Born in Sydney, Jones draws upon his convict ancestry as source material for his diverse practice, considering himself complicit in cultural dispossession. Relentlessly delving into his own genealogy, Jones presents an unedited account of his own heritage to engage with a wider narrative on colonisation. The artist deftly binds the threads of his family history throughout his painting, sculpture, installation and collage. In doing so he reminds us of the intricacies of human connections, even across continents and centuries.
Jones has long been interested in Australia's colonial history and the journey of the First Fleet, a story that remains relatively unspoken in the U.K. The arrival of 717 British convicts in 1787 formed the beginnings of modern day Australia, and it also marked a dramatic turning point in Jones' own heritage. His ancestor, Robert Forrester was convicted of theft in London in 1783 and was destined for New South Wales on board the First Fleet. The lives of Robert Forrester and his common law wife Isabella Ramsay have been the genesis for a number of Jones' exhibitions to date in Australia, uncovering the early days of the convicts and English colonial rule.
Building upon this work, this year Jones has delved deeper into his ancestry, leaving his homeland for Europe to trace his convict ancestors to their distant origins in Northern England. Throughout his six-month residency at The Ropewalk Studios in North Lincolnshire, the Australian artist collected and produced imagery that related to personal landmarks in his ancestors' lives. Although he could never have known what they felt about leaving their mother land, nor fully comprehend what their life was like, his twenty first century road trip was a psychological starting point. The artist visited the possible site of Robert Forrester's baptism in Kirk Andrews upon Esk near Carlisle in Cumbria and also the site of his alleged crime of stealing six gold coins in a lodging house near St Giles in the Field church some 260 miles away in London. This seems rather a petty crime for when we learn he was subsequently convicted and sentenced to death at The Old Bailey. Thankfully for the present day Alan Jones his convict ancestor's sentence that was reduced to transportation to New South Wales.
Despite the hours of research and elaborate thought processes that inform them, Jones' canvasses have a distinctly immediate appeal, as if the various threads have hastened to join together. He manages to take hundreds of years of history and deeply layered imagery and present it as a snapshot. The works may be to the point but they are no less poignant for it. In fact, the sense of nostalgia and connectivity with generations past is effectively heightened by their closeness and contemporary presentation.
These are not whimsical wonderings about how his family members lived generations ago, intended to document and entertain. His work can often have an unsettling effect upon the viewer, especially when we understand specific references to Jones' contemporary personal life such as incorporating a likeness of his baby son amongst convict portraiture. These specific people and places therefore contribute an acutely sensitive layer to the dialogue. Jones is at once incredibly specific and fastidious with the truth, and also simultaneously gifted at drawing wider conclusions and highlighting collective trends and experiences. Although Jones is an artist preoccupied with the theme of identity, he is not making work about himself. Millions share the fundamentals of the narrative he presents; he taps into shared experience and finds commonality in his own past with others. Mutato nomine et de te fabula narratur: Change only the name and this story is about you.
Alan Jones, 'The Mother Land' is currently on display at the Ropewalk Studio in Barton Upon Humber until 14 October 2012.
Alan Jones, 'The Mother Land' opens at The Fine Art Society during the London art fair week on Wednesday 10th October and runs until 27 October.
Alan Jones 'New South Wales', is on display at Watters Gallery in Sydney from 30 October - 17 November 2012.