“Everything is driven by emotion and struggle,” says Salt Lake artist Wynter Jones. Her painting has always been personal, an automatic expression of her inner being, a primal instinct, even a survival method. Her long journey of self-conflict, and the conflict of that self with its environment, began ten years ago in what were initially disturbing self-portraits. As this energy became more aggressive, her work became grotesque until completely amorphous; Jones morphed and tore herself open literally and figuratively in what she calls an act of “purging.” So, as she prepares for a new solo exhibit at Salt Lake’s A Gallery, it is refreshing to hear her frankly say, “I’m not as pissed off as I used to be.”
More than anything else, Wynter Jones has proven to be an artist without fear. She has not been afraid to use her art, in a very personal and very public way, towards self-mastery as an artist, and more importantly as a human being. With these new works she’s taking an exciting turn that reveals her to be the kind of individual she fought to be for 10 years in public battles of personal conflict revealed through her painting. Jones, who has felt driven by beliefs in “essentials of humanity, depth and honesty,” has not resolved her war with the inner self and her culture by giving up on her struggles but by assuring herself of her sense of self and her sense of authenticity, as her new works beautifully show. An eye-opening trip to Africa, and the birth of her son two years ago, were pivotal moments that helped Jones get outside of herself to win this war.
A work like “Departure” exemplifies what is left of Jones’ unresolved sense of self-conflict. It is a piece that resonates with her previous artistic language: an essential method that itself bears the essence of conflict. It is a method that is integral with images of the grotesque and the amorphous. Jones attacks her paint and canvas with a mixture of mineral spirits, linseed oil and paint thinner, creating the marks that have defined her style for much of her ten years as a professional artist. This method is essentially one of contrasts and conflict, aggression and tension — abstract works that still speak of an interior struggle.
In her newer works, in which the figure is central, Jones’ gaze is more external. Although she moves ahead with an easier sense of self, it seems from the new work that Jones has not settled for a life of easy answers and a pacified existence but is prepared for challenges that inevitably lie ahead.
Many of the figures in these new works stem from a trip Jones took to Africa in 2008 to do humanitarian work. But if one were to take a look at “Holding Up Half The Sky” and think that Jones has found herself by patronizing the Africans she met, they would be far from the truth. “I felt out of place,” Jones says of her trip. She found herself asking, “What are we doing here? They’re fine. They don’t do things the way we do. We show up with a bag of solutions when they don’t know they have a problem.”
She paints “Holding Up Half The Sky” from anything but a detached perspective of the “National Geographic style of observation,” but rather imbues the work with a keen artistic perspective of color, beauty and vision. This is a mirror image; the same woman is painted on the left, wearing red, and on the right, in blue. She bears no resemblance to the fair-skinned, red-haired artist, yet, it is hard not to see in the work a subjective, autobiographical gaze … that even as her gaze looks outward, that as far as she has come, her work is still an expression of herself. This woman stands tall, proudly and bravely, and seems to say, “I have come far, I have fought my battles, I have won my war and I journey on, take me or leave me as I am.” The duality of the mirror image might respond to the ongoing autobiographical nature of Jones’ work. Jones’ conscientious self is perhaps never truly alone but always in a dual relationship of being — a relationship gained and one not broken after a lifetime of “putting myself out there” and self-contemplation.
“To Each Their Own” is also not isolated but five representations of the same young African. He is a charming and happy boy, who is seen in five phases of totality. The first is complete, the second is phased out to a degree and the fifth is but a shade. Just what these phases consist of psychologically is equivocal, yet it is unequivocal that Jones infuses herself with the subject. This is very much like van Gogh’s approach to his canvases — symbolically with a sense of self. The sunflowers bear a very personal energy; the universal starry night also evokes also an individual emotion while his portraits were either of himself or charged with emotive symbolism.
Perhaps the most revealing of Jones’ progress as an artist and as a human being is the incredibly personal and intimate “Self Portrait.” The image is a sensitive portrait of the artist with her son. Painted in a way that by now Jones is singularly expert at, she combines a marvelously subdued and finely articulated rendering of herself and her son that is interwoven with hushed abstraction, all in magnificent muted jewel tones. The painting is a stunning work of art; to render such figures is astonishing; to create such wonderful abstraction is astonishing; and to express the two together in such a way is even more astonishing. Further, as a work of meaning it is heavy-laden. Jones attributes the greatest change in her recent life to her two-year-old son, to which this painting serves as a witness. Further, look carefully at the face of the artist and you will not see someone totally at peace, tranquil, and meditating on her son and a new found sense of place, but a face still journeying forward. It is a calm face, resolute, strong, with a secure consciousness and one that is still searching with more of life to live and more challenges to face.
In the new works by Wynter Jones one can see a visual progression and a metaphorical one too. One can see a style and capacity that has moved ahead. It is essentially linked to the artist whose personal emotive expression has allowed her to move forward — a personal emancipation that has allowed for an artistic emancipation also. Yet even in these new works of new subjects the energetic autobiographical impulse that has defined the artist’s work for 10 years continues unabated. As Jones is a fascinating artist and a provocative human being one hopes to continue to see a future inclusive of herself as much of the subject of her work as anything else. Interest gained through Jones’ autobiographical impetus may be more compelling and personal to the viewer than any isolated subjects without Jones’ fighting spirit could ever be.
Ehren Clark studied art history at both the University of Utah and the University of Reading in the UK. For a decade he lived in Salt Lake City and worked as a professional writer until his untimely death in 2017.