Visual Art

Darren Jones Celebrates Scotland's Beautiful and Bawdy Qualities With a Text-Based Installation

Art critic and artist Darren Jones began his career as a painter before he began introducing words into his work. Now Jones says he “thinks of words the way a sculptor thinks of clay.”

Nine Inch Will Please a Lady: Romance and Ribaldry in the Literary Vernacular of Scotland
is the wordy title of the highly personal, text-based installation by Jones currently on view at The Reading Room. The show, which will be on view through Dec. 10, takes Jones’ home country as its subject, but his inspiration for its creation comes directly from Texas.

Jones, who is finishing up a residency at UTD’s CentralTrak artist residency this month, got to know the work of the late Texas-based artist John Wilcox during his time in Dallas, and Wilcox’s own practice of incorporating text, specifically text written in the Texas vernacular, prompted Jones to utilize the language and literature of Scotland to explore his relationship to his native country.

Like Texas, Scotland is a place imbued with a high regard for legends. From the writers who have called it home, to the stunning landscapes, to the interesting place Scotland occupies in geo-politics, Scotland and Scottish history are ripe for romanticization. “Growing up in Scotland there’s not so much distance between mythology and reality – it’s all just kind of present,” Jones says.

Of course, over time a person’s relationship with home changes, and it’s that evolving sense of place that comes with age, and the requisite cynicism, that Jones attempts to capture at the Reading Room.  Instead of art objects, Jones’ installation is fittingly composed almost exclusively of text. The back wall features a selection of quotes, some anonymous, some attributed to famous Scots, that blend high and low sensibilities but tend toward the humorous.

George Bernard Shaw offers, “God help England if she has no Scots to think for her"; another piece pokes fun at the Scottish drinking culture: “They speak of my drinking but never of my thirst.” On the main wall a selection of common Scottish sayings, in what was to me an indecipherable English dialect, are accompanied by Jones’ translations.

The exhibition is about getting at the true nature of a place which for Jones (and Scotland) is complex, full of people and places with two sides and two meanings. Robert Burns, perhaps Scotland’s most prized poet, provided Jones with the show’s name, and the entire text of what can only be described as a bawdy song by Burns is also included on the walls, allowing Jones to offer another side to Scotland’s revered native son.

Some of Jones' own writing is present too; he includes several beautiful poems and a brief fictional story that reveal his skill with words and what remains, even after years spent living abroad and his obvious willingness to poke holes in a white-washed picture of a culture, a romantic attachment to the Scottish mystique.

By relating the glib Scottish jokes and clichés, which tend to celebrate man's base and even savage instincts, to the beautiful mystique of the Scottish highlands Jones captures in some of his own overly romantic writing, he accommodates a complex history as well his own conflicted relationship with it. He’s offering a reconsideration of our tendency — thanks in no small part to Hollywood and the authors of our history books — to dissociate our baser instincts from the noble ones. Burns can be both beautiful and banal, elevated and bawdy. As can Scotland and her people.

There are a couple of objects on view. A collection of bottles on a small shelf containing captured Scottish air hint at the mystical side of Scotland and serve as tokens of the visuals easily conjured of mist-enshrouded Scottish castles. A rough-edged drawing of a castle entitled “The Ancient and Domestic Architecture of Scotland, The Red Castle of the Moon” is also on view, but the exhibition, as so many Karen Weiner installs at the Reading Room, relies on a reconsideration of the art installation as such. Jones' spare use of traditional objects is more easily understood as an aid to the readings he invites the patient viewer to undertake.

Jones is humble enough to admit the feelings he has for his homeland may be in no small part due to the expatriate status he has enjoyed for over a decade, but I don’t think any viewer will come away feeling his reverie is simply a consequence of his distance.

We in the U.S. have become increasingly aware of the gaps in our history and of the tendency of the writers of that history to suppress some of its more shameful or seedy elements. While Jones’ show isn’t pointing to any particularly shameful aspect of Scottish culture, unless you disapprove of drinking excessively, he’s humbly offering his own attempt at redefining how we think about and write about culture, asking us to accept the high and low and the beautiful and ugly not as mutually exclusive, but as necessary sides of the same coin.

Nine Inch Will Please a Lady: Romance and Ribaldry in the Literary Vernacular of Scotland will be on view from 2 to 5 p.m. Saturdays through Dec. 10 at The Reading Room, 3715 Parry Ave.