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What rose up out of the Mudman

Kim Jones put the political in performance art. At Luckman, his evolution is traced.

March 30, 2007|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

A myth or legend is a story that is not factually true -- a fiction that conjures the supernatural. All societies fabricate them, to orient people toward a moral dimension that is real but elusive, natural but invisible to the naked eye.

Freud called them "public dreams." As personifications of collective social truths, myths can be as elaborate as a full-blown creation story, like the Iroquois Sky People or Genesis, and as childishly simplistic as George Washington and the cherry tree.

And then there is Mudman.

On Jan. 28, 1976, an apparition appeared on Wilshire Boulevard. A man slathered with mud carried on his back a big, unwieldy lattice, cobbled together from wooden slats, tree branches and lengths of bamboo daubed with paint and lashed with twine, black electrical tape and shredded cheesecloth. A human tumbleweed, Mudman was crowned with a nominal hat of scrunched foam rubber and sticks. A nylon stocking was pulled down over his head, obscuring his face. He could see us, but we couldn't see him.

Mudman appeared on a Wednesday at dawn at the corner of Grand Avenue, where he began his westward trek. At dusk he arrived at the Pacific Ocean. In between he passed through Wilshire's disparate neighborhoods -- commercial, civic and residential -- like some primitive organism traveling the city's spine on a mad return-journey to the sea. At Johnie's diner on the corner of Fairfax Avenue, Mudman stopped and met friends for coffee.

That small detail tells us something important about Kim Jones' creation of this mythic character, something further illuminated in the new exhibition at Cal State Los Angeles' Luckman Gallery. "Kim Jones: A Retrospective" brings together 10 sculptural constructions, 34 works on paper and 77 documentary photographs in a concise yet probing analysis of the artist's career. Together they underscore this disconcerting truth: Mudman is one mythic, legendary concatenation that is fact, not fiction.

Jones did not invent the genre of performance art, but he was a significant figure within its 1970s American efflorescence. When he performed, he was not acting a role. Whether on his 1976 "Wilshire Walk" -- undertaken on his 32nd birthday, he reversed the trip one week later in a second walk from the sea to downtown L.A. -- or in seemingly random appearances in his Venice neighborhood or, following a move to New York City in 1980, on downtown streets or the plaza at Lincoln Center, he was always being himself. His strange, attenuated appearance, at once attractive and repulsive, gave outward form to an inner dynamic.

Along Wilshire Boulevard, Jones' performance had no aesthetic frame of reference. It was just there, out on the sidewalk, moving with the flow of pedestrian traffic and turning heads.

At Luckman, the unwieldy backpack is shown wedged between a wall and a plain wooden chair, where the artist might sit to slip his arms through the foam-padded straps to hoist the apparatus onto his back. On the floor in front of the chair is a pair of heavily worn black motorcycle boots. The footwear is as notable for its ordinariness as the backpack is for its eccentricity.

At least since Van Gogh, shoes have symbolized the absent artist's humble presence in a work of art. Here the boots seem to be adding another layer: The weird-gear of the backpack is no less real -- and no more fictive -- than the everyday boots. Both are what Jones wears in his capacity as a human being who is an artist, and no substantive difference separates them.

Jointly organized by Luckman Gallery director Julie Joyce and Sandra Q. Firmin, gallery curator at the University at Buffalo, New York, where it was seen last fall, the show lays out Mudman's origins.

Long shelves line two walls on which documentary photographs are displayed. The first is an enlargement of a 1953 newspaper clipping in which Jane Powell and Gordon MacRae greet a little girl and a 9-year-old boy, Jones, on the Warner Bros. set of "Three Sailors and a Girl." Jones raises his leg to show Powell, a celebrated dancer, the heavy braces he wore as a result of a polio-like disease. The actors, according to the photo caption, are supporting the "Easter Seal campaign for crippled children."

Nearby, another photograph of a grinning Jones, now 11, shows him standing tall and straight before a blank white background. His feet seem stressed, but no braces encase his sturdy bare legs.

Jones, the artist, altered the clinical snapshot in 1999, using acrylic paint to transform his youthful boxer shorts into a tangle of intestines. They're extruded from his body and rise up around him on a rickety superstructure, creating an aura not unlike the latticework backpack.

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