This article was originally published by HOWDESIGN.COM in 2015
For designer and creative director Rob Jones, the projects he’s been a part of are told as collaborations — he is there as part cog and part utilitarian craftsman.
Bring up his gig posters and package design for The White Stripes, The Dead Weather, and The Raconteurs and he’ll mention how he takes his visual cues from the sound of the bands. Ask about his design work for The Criterion Collection and Jones makes sure the projects are understood as a group effort. When it comes to his art direction for boutique poster gallery Mondo, Jones diverts all compliments towards the artists he gets to work with.
In 2014 he was invited to take over Chicago based gallery Galerie F for Grief: A Solo Exhibition by Rob Jones. This wasn’t Jones acting as art director or designer, but as artist. A solo outing that revealed the depth of self-awareness and insight of a major figure in modern design and poster art.
For Grief, Jones looked to Charles Schultz’s Charlie Brown character as a springboard for his own series of self-portraits that spanned his personal history of self-doubt, embarrassments, and fears. The exhibit was a work in memory, those events we keep to ourselves — the ones that stay hidden. Jones plays out his memories of failure, sexual flaws, suicidal considerations and general annoyance across one hundred illustrations.
Grief was a mind-blowing collection of self-portraits that use that format as an exploration of the dark comedy of failure and doubt. Jones’ ideas are big (sin, death, happiness), but by summing them up in simple 8.5″ x 11″ two-color illustrations he’s broken them down into his own wordless language.
CJ: Grief was nothing short of stunning. It’s a bold display of an artist with his guard down, letting everything flow, risking embarrassment at the nakedness of it.
For an artist known for gig posters and film design, an exhibition of over 100 self-portraits is an unexpected choice. When the opportunity for a full show came up, what prompted you to go down the path you chose?
RJ: Probably my narcissism. I’m sure those who know me well weren’t terribly surprised I went with a subject I hold so dear. Like most folks, I’m cursed with a great recall for tsuris and embarrassment. You rarely tell stories around the Thanksgiving table about that family vacation where everyone got along and had a great time. You tend to recount the tale of how the Chrysler’s AC broke down in Phoenix, the engine crapped out and the motel everyone trudged to had a knife fight going on in the parking lot. If you’re lucky, those that endured it with you laugh in remembrance.
Originally I wanted to create a show around my dead pets. For the introductory image, I envisioned a joyful reunion above the clouds between my skeleton and departed friends from the animal kingdom. Below this ghostly conference, a torrent of gavels pelt the mortal realm I escaped.
That’s why we have such strong connections to animals, they don’t judge you and can foster a domestic environment closer to paradise. They’re quite happy with your company no matter what you look like, how you dress, or what terrible choices you might make. Well, a cat might shit in your shoes every once in awhile, but that’s really on you and your treatment of the cat.
I didn’t think I could carry the idea through a whole show without making it a full-on group effort. Grief kept an aspect of the initial premise through the series of ‘Farewell…’ portraits. These focused exclusively on the dead bodies of pets I observed first hand. That remains an important distinction to me as it’s a hell of a final image to behold of a being you loved.
When I attend a funeral, I try to avert my eyes during the whole affair if it’s open casket. For example, my cat Charlie lived 21 years before a couple of shithead dogs tore him apart. My friend Linton found the body and put it in a bag, but I didn’t peek into it. I just dug the grave near a big tree. As a result, Charlie’s death didn’t make it into the show. Oddly enough, he does pop up in ‘Farewell, Walter’ as Walter’s nonchalant murderer. Walter was a bird I nursed back to health only to watch Charlie break his neck and then calmly walk away.
Taken as a whole Grief tells a story, your story — of hurt, depression, struggle, and embarrassments both common and specific. With something like your piece ‘Same Dream Every Night,’ the viewer gets it immediately – no explanation needed, as where ‘You ain’t Yoda’ has a very specific and unique to you story tied to it. Was there any concern that the more specific pieces would be lost on the audience?
I never really worry about that. Katherine Hepburn once said, “If you always do what interests you, at least one person is pleased.” That naive lack of concern certainly seeps into my gig poster work. I did a Dead Weather poster with all the information rendered entirely in code from Poe’s The Gold-Bug knowing most folks at the show were unlikely to tune into that.
However, I’ve found that the more personal I make an image, despite the potential for unrestrained esotericism, I naturally become more invested. This results in a more compelling although often garbled message. I fail most of the time transmitting ideas and thoughts to other folks verbally, so why should I expect a higher hit rate with visual communication.
If anything, someone could look at a piece that might seem inexplicable yet find it commenting on their own experience in a way I would never imagine. On the clenched hand, I might create something that reads perfectly yet only elicits a shrug.
Charlie Brown acts as a shortcut to ease the viewer into portraits like ‘Always Just Waiting For It’ and ‘High School,’ drawings that tell some painful stuff. Without Mr. Brown ‘Trying Again’ would be a heartbreaking image, with him it’s still heartbreaking but there’s an added dark humor.
Was Charlie Brown part of the concept of the show from the start? Has he always played a part in your internal self-portraiture?
Yeah, in that he’s someone I identified with as a kid and that feeling stayed with me. I could say the same for Beetle Bailey only because I was bullied often and liked to sleep a lot. You’re either drawn to characters you sympathize with or those that you want to become. For the latter, I guess that would be someone like James Bond, but I’m still a billion footsteps away from strapping on a Walther PPK or even ordering wine correctly.
Schultz uses a child as it makes the misery and failure surrounding Charlie easier to bear. Charlie’s just starting out, so there’s still a future awaiting him. Charlie believes it too, that’s why he exhibits such a bizarre optimism. He keeps trying to fly that kite around that shitty tree, win the attentions of the little Red-Haired Girl, kick that fucking football, and trudge up that pitcher’s mound. The reason the comic works is we share that hope. I always wished the last Peanuts Sunday strip had been Charlie rolling each of those Sisyphean obstacles over the goddamn hill. Maybe he’ll grow up and accomplish some big goal, or at least not let that shit bother him so much. It’s beneficial to have failure and pain if you can reflect upon it and grow. Using it as a learning moment can make those feelings actually ‘good’ grief.
I’m not sure I accomplished that in my own life, hence the name of the show being just Grief. Instead of building on embarrassments and fuck-ups I just spent decades ruminating on them. The presence of hope fades and instead of a Charlie Brown with a possible chance of a future, you look in the mirror and find you wound up a Ziggy with pants. You realize nobody is going to surround you and heap ornaments upon your branches until you flesh out into a full-blown Christmas tree. Cynicism strangles your perceptions until you recognize yourself as an anemic slumping pine tree with a future that promises only more needles falling into the snow. I don’t wish that mindset on anyone, but that’s all I know from my experience. Hopefully, folks can look at the show and see another point of view without catching the infection of shadows.
To answer the other part of your question, no it wasn’t always part of the concept from the start. After the “Dead Pet” show idea seemed a wash, I considered a self-portrait show detailing my life in various styles and mediums. I wanted a backdrop for a funeral and attend the show in a coffin I designed. I brought this up to my friend Mitch Putnam for a reality check to make sure I wasn’t racing towards an over-indulgent Brian Wilson avenue. He wearily shook his head audibly on the phone and suggested I drop the funereal aspect along with the proposed scattered execution styles.
Mitch urged that I maintain the biographical approach with the Charlie Brown illustrations I recently began to share. He argued the obvious: a cohesive show carries more impact. It’s the exact sort of advice I’d give someone else, but I’m the guy who loves to hand out roadmaps while continually getting lost.
I sighed and agreed with Mitch, although I would enjoy reclining in a casket with tiki drinks poured down my throat. Hell, maybe just take some pills and knock myself out for a few hours to make the whole affair more real for attendees. I can hear Mitch shaking his head at that.
A number of the portraits were in collaboration with other artists that have gone unnamed. How were the collaborators chosen? Are they telling your history or their own? Is it a shared event these artists are composing with Rob Jones in mind?
I think they’re named now, I identified and thanked them all when I posted each collaboration online. For the record, they were Dan Black, Aaron Horkey, Mike Mitchell, Neal Russler, Jay Shaw, Ken Taylor, and Mishka Westell.
Most were just spur of the moment affairs. It would consume eight paragraphs to discuss the process and story for each one. I’ll pick one as an example as it relates to a previous statement.
During one of my almost nightly phone calls to Mitch, he mentioned Dan Black would be interested in doing a piece for the show. I was happy/surprised if anyone wanted to contribute so I readily exclaimed that would be great. For some reason, Dan really wanted to mash up a Garfield head onto a Charlie Brown body. I liked the idea as it read like an iteration of my ‘Packing Posters,’ a visualization of how certain situations transmogrify me into an ogre.
A healthy mind has to acknowledge that other folks see you in an entirely different way than you might see yourself. I might not actually seem ‘Charlie Brown’ to some folks, but instead, I probably give off an asshole striped tabby vibration as seen in Dan’s work. I know he didn’t intend this, but like I said earlier, you never know how your art might interact with someone’s experience.
There is a lot of world history and classic literature going on in Grief. You have a Charlie Brown as Hitler drawing, ‘2 Nuts 1 Nut’ in the show, which tells of Hitler’s own supposed embarrassing fact that he only had one testicle. Is a piece like that or ‘I Must Die or Be Better, It Appears to Me’ a direct self-portrait?
The Hitler one concerns the envy within me generated by a luxurious full head of hair. I imagine Hitler in all his irrational pettiness getting angry at anything with two nuts whereas he was supposedly monorchidic. I have Caligula-eyes and super notice a thickly covered and well-managed scalp. It murders you when somebody sympathizes with statements like, “Oh yeah, I’m getting a little thin up there.” It’s like comparing nearsightedness to blindness.
I actually tried Rogaine for a week about 10 years ago when the roof still had shingles. I watched the formula drip down my forehead and leave temporary red streaks of flushed flesh. I kept thinking of that scene in Mommie Dearest when Joan redoubles her beauty regimen to get into “casting” shape after MGM dropped her. I felt ridiculous. I decided to wave goodbye to natural winter head warmth and chucked that shit in the trash. You know the process is complete when you’re finally bald in your dreams, but that actually takes a while.
‘I must die or be better’ comments on my jobs. Lincoln fought, failed, and fought again repeatedly to gain political office until he reached the pinnacle of civil service. After acquiring this coveted position, the timing made it suddenly resemble a monkey’s paw wish gone awry. I don’t know if Booth needed to bother, he could have waited and let Abe’s work finish him off. I feel like that sometimes with my vocational pursuits. I’m extraordinarily blessed to enjoy success thus far in my chosen field, but it requires (for me anyways) a lot of hard work, sleepless nights, and repeated damage to my body.
I’ve developed a few gross conditions that physically indicate what level of stress I’m experiencing (symbolized by all the new warts I drew around Lincoln’s face). Another condition popped up a couple of years ago around my eyes and now my left one can swell shut. I’m sure an ulcer isn’t too far behind. All that said, I wouldn’t trade it for another life or an easy office gig. Well, at least not at the moment.
One of the few positive portraits is ‘Lightbulbhead,’ a drawing that marks the moment you first read the book Barabbas. Most of Grief focuses on that which holds you down, but this portrait shows us what inspires you. With the show being titled Grief that’s not surprising but was there an attempt to show the full breadth of your experiences?
It’s been said that pain inspires more music, painting, art in general than happiness — are uplifting life moments difficult to create art from or did they just not find a place in the show?
Actually ‘Lightbulbhead‘ is a dubious honorific bestowed upon me in 7th grade on account of my chronic hand raising in science class. A lot of lonely experienced then as I just moved from Waco, TX to Cleveland, TN. My social awkwardness worsened as that year I discovered Doctor Who. Hmmm, now that I think of it, I probably should have drawn a Doctor Who annual for the book I’m holding. Anyways, to make the hair squiggle bit work, I drew a broken filament. I decided to illustrate the figure holding something that ‘blew my mind’ so I put a copy of Barabbas in my hand. I didn’t discover that book til 11th grade, but I kept rereading it once I got a copy.
The cobwebs left by the religious indoctrination of my youth were starting to clear out, and this novel made it easier to come to grips with the alternative of post-mortem oblivion. Not an entirely happy realization, but at least when it comes you won’t be aware of the lack of another side. Then again I could come back as a butterfly.
I’m not sure there was much exploration of the happy moments. The show surely amounts to a lopsided presentation of my life as I have plenty of smiles and laughs to recollect, more than any of us probably deserve. However, I think the only ‘positive’ image wound up the Mike Tyson based image that centers on the aforementioned pleasure pet companionship affords. That’s why there’s no yellow used in that one.
‘Squarest Thing You Do’ is one of the pieces more directly influenced by Charlie Brown in the show – he’s literally a blockhead. For three limited edition prints of the portrait, you left the figure’s right arm out so you could draw a unique arm for each print. After over 100 drawings, what inspired you to give yourself another task like this?
I’m dumb and I thought I’d turn them out quicker than I did. I originally intended to just draw new office objects representative of obsessions similar to my Dune fanaticism. Examples would include, say a Kiss figure, a customized Captain Sensible doll, a copy of “The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde,” a Caligula coin, a cat scratched Vonnegut book, etc.
Those ideas only work if I depict an overly accurate item in the same manner as the Feyd Rautha figure used for the original, and that illustration took me a while. Not just the final but also the numerous practice rounds to lightly draw something that detailed at such a small scale with my crummy Pigma pens. In the end, I just zipped up some stuff that felt fun and quick. A bit of a break from the other required tedious renderings.
Did Galerie F approach you about doing a show? Did you have a relationship with them prior to Grief?
Yep. Zissou (of Galerie F) asked me at Flatstock. That might have been the first time I spoke with him although I’m terrible at remembering the first time I meet folks. I told him I’d have a think about it. I smoked some cigarettes that popped a few kernels around that could only hold dismal financial prospects for the gallery. I saw him later and said, “I have some ideas, but they would be extremely unprofitable, unpopular, or likely both.” To his credit, he replied that it wouldn’t be an issue. He either had an overestimation of my popularity or a commendable curiosity.
Accepting potential failure beforehand facilitated the entire creation process. When you’re not beholden to commercial viability, you wind up with nothing to risk and a free tongue to wet your brush. Any other scenario might breed compromise.
With your extensive work as a creative director for Mondo, Criterion, plus plenty of gig posters for the many Jack White offshoots, did you need or want feedback from the gallery? Was there any involvement in the overall direction of the show?
They asked for more prints. That was about it. I wasn’t keyed to make as many as I did in order to maintain focus on the originals, but I complied hoping it would make it possibly profitable enough to pay their electric bill.
With Grief over and done with, the portraits all sold, the prints all sold – does it change how you view the events in your life you depicted? Will your next solo exhibit be completely different or are there areas in self-portraiture left to explore?
It was nice therapy in a way. Not so much exploring those miserable loops but actually picking up a pen and marker for an extended period of time. I rarely give myself time to create in that way apart from doodling on the phone. Packing it all in on top of my various other jobs made the affair pretty exhausting. Too much candy at Halloween I suppose.
Still not sure what I’ll do for my next solo show, but for my booth, at MondoCon I’m considering turning one wall into a mini-gallery with 25 Grief self-portraits and 25 Fuss portraits of my wife.
You had family come out for the opening of the show, were they seeing parts of you that they didn’t know about or was it all out in the open beforehand?
I try my best to not wear the Sunday-mask around my extended family, so they all have a good idea of what I’m about. In her youth, my mother had a difficult time speaking openly with my grandmother about personal matters. She made it a point to establish a dialogue where we could breezily talk about any subject. Christ, last night she informed me how much cleaning my circumcision scar grossed her out, so there’s not much left untold between us (although I admit that fact was new).
As for everyone else, they surprised me by the particular pieces they bought. For example, my sister chose ‘Farewell, Snow’ which depicts my departed white cat. Snow fell asleep inside the wheel well of the Chrysler. She dropped out onto the road and under the tires while my mom zoomed me to a doctor’s appointment. I freaked out in the back seat begging mom to stop, but she replied, ‘We’re late.’
On the trip back we pulled over and I witnessed my poor cat’s face reduced to an unrecognizable pink mash. I asked if we could take her home to bury her, but my mother came up with some excellent on-the-spot bullshit to avoid bringing a bloody road-baked cat into the car. She pointed at some buzzards overhead and told me, ‘Honey, you don’t bury cats. You see those birds up there? I’m going to leave Snow in the field and they’ll carry her up to heaven.’ She then picked Snow up by the tail and pulled a Pete Townsend to toss the corpse towards its ‘sky burial.’ I was 7 or 8 so it all sounded reasonable to me. Anyways, my sister now has this terror up in her home office.
You mentioned during a past conversation that the Vacvvm might publish a Grief book collecting all the images from the show with the stories behind each image – is that still a go?
Still working that out. It would require a hell of a lot of writing.
There’s bravery to Grief, the openness of if. It makes the audience consider themselves and what moments they have that are similar. I have moments similar yet different to yours that I wouldn’t tell anyone, but then again I might not talk about them but I would write about them. The natural progression of creating anything is to delve into those darkened moments.
Your honesty is a strong trait to who you are as an individual so it naturally becomes a part of who you are as a creative person. Is that honesty what separates illustration from fine art, or are those distinctions more about having a client with specific demands?
Maybe. It turns your illustration into something truthful rather than just a straight depiction. I don’t see that necessarily as bravery though at least relative to my personal experience. I figured out a long time ago that it’s just easier, to be honest.
That results in a lot of oversharing or TMI on my part, which can turn people away, but I always find folks with similar sentiments more interesting. You can choose to be Howard Stern or stay safe as Rick Dees. I’d rather be a Howard.
Grief felt like more a fine art show than a poster show. It wasn’t you as a creative director but as an artist. Are those roles and distinctions bullshit concepts for guys like me who write about the work but don’t do it ourselves to toss around, or is there actually something to it? Is a Rob Jones Jack White gig poster different from ‘Lightbulbhead’?
It depends on how much of myself I plaster into it. It helps that I’ve primarily done gig poster work for bands that speak to my experience in some fashion. The following is an oft-told example, but it feels germane to this question. I made a poster for the Dead Weather shortly after my only paternal uncle passed away. He was a fun fat witty gourmand whose death made me angry and sad. I went to the funeral and then got pretty drunk. I generally reserve that vice for vacations or family visits. This was the first time in about 13 years I imbibed because of sorrow. It only reminded me how easily the bottle can overtake you in exchange for deadening your thoughts.
I got home and took a fairly famous (but copyright-free) photo by Toni Frissell, an underwater shot of a girl in a white gown. I read her body as slowly sinking, like Renton into the carpet. I added a waterline, an overcast sky, and a face with lightning shooting from the eyes. That’s how I felt at the funeral with a jumble of blue and mean red energy crackling in my brain. I wanted to quiet that shit down, submerge myself with booze and numbly drift to a lake bottom like the girl in the photo. The problem is, of course, you keep that shit up too long and you’ll drown. So yeah, that gig poster was pretty personal. It’s probably not an accident that it remains my most popular poster for the Dead Weather.