Do not go lightly into "Kim Jones: A Retrospective. " In this show, caution and respect are called for, because you're going to encounter some of the most disturbing artwork you'll ever see.

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Do not go lightly into “Kim Jones: A Retrospective.” In this show, caution and respect are called for, because you’re going to encounter some of the most disturbing artwork you’ll ever see — a time capsule of traumas and cruelty seared by the Vietnam War into the psyche of one artist.

At first I found it odd that Jones is still replaying his imagery of a period 30 years past: Normally, artists keep developing and move on. But it may be that for Jones, like countless other veterans, the moral schism between life as usual in the States and the degradation of his war experience can never be reconciled. It formed his inner world and the cruelty, chaos, obsessiveness and isolation that his multimedia artwork embodies.

Jones volunteered for the Marine Corps in 1966 and eventually spent 13 months in Vietnam. After he returned home to Southern California and completed his service, he went back to art school. Jones soon began shocking people with the images that poured out of him. He created the sculptural alter ego Mudman by smearing his beautifully formed and muscled body with mud, covering his head with pantyhose, strapping a bulky contraption of sticks to his back and venturing out into society. He looked like the kind of alien he felt himself to be. “I was an outsider, a spiky thing, walking through the main artery of the city. Molecules fit in, but if something’s spiky it doesn’t fit in,” Jones has said.

To categorize Jones’ appearances as performance art is misleading. They were metaphorical actions, four-dimensional sculptures (with time as the added dimension): a psyche turned inside out. The retrospective includes photographs of Jones as Mudman, as well as related stick sculptures, drawings, assemblage and collage work.

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This is one show where knowing something about the artist’s biography is essential. A good introduction can be found in Julie Joyce’s essay in the catalog “Mudman: The Odyssey of Kim Jones.” (Some other essays in the book bog down in psychologizing and maddening assertions.) As a boy, Jones contracted the bone disorder Perthes disease and spent the years between 7 and 10 in leg braces and a wheelchair. When he was well enough, he was placed in a special school for disabled children. By fifth grade, he was able to shed the braces and return to public school, but remained a withdrawn and rather isolated boy who spent much time drawing and modeling with clay. Some of his pencil drawings depicted imaginary battlegrounds.

Jones wasn’t the only artist who ended up responding to the Vietnam era with violent and disturbing imagery. In 1971, Los Angeles artist Chris Burden had an assistant shoot him in the arm — to name just one famous example. But Jones wasn’t just vibrating to the distressed tenor of the times. He had actually been a soldier, whose memories of the war included burning live rats as a diversion. Back in California, Jones re-created that horrible ritual and caused a righteous storm of indignation (and some misguided support). From this distance, one striking thing about that performance is that no one in Jones’ audience tried to stop him from setting fire to the animals. Had people grown numb and passive from television images of children burning with napalm and monks self-immolating?

That awful past action by Jones prefaces his identification with rats and their importance in his artwork. In the drawings you will see the body of Mudman merged with a rat, the tortured animal and the torturing man as one. And, as to be expected with war-related imagery, expect to see sexuality and violence get tangled together. This is not a show for young children.

Jones made an appearance at the opening reception of the Henry Gallery exhibition. It was billed as a performance, but basically Jones smeared himself with mud from a bucket, strapped on his kinky halo of sticks and stood in the gallery amid his artworks talking to visitors. Mudman, I was told, is generally friendly but does not always respond truthfully to questions. In a controlled museum setting, Mudman/Jones seemed like an aging wild animal in a zoo, his body no longer svelt and chiseled, his aura somewhat sad and diminished. A cleaning woman trailed behind him through the gallery, wiping mud up off the floor.

Sheila Farr:

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