Despite its functionalist urban plan, some believe that Milton Keynes was designed along mystic ley lines because – on the longest day of the year – the sunset aligns perfectly with the very end of Midsummer Boulevard. The last building on this high street, and the first to greet the solstice sun, is MK Gallery, where Gareth Jones currently has his first UK solo exhibition since 2003. Having grown up in the new town, Jones’ show is geographically specific but avoids parochialism by exploring methods of display, the image and consumerism (as well as his own previous work), in a homecoming that is more contemplative than celebratory.
I was reminded of the pseudo-mysticism and geometry that is connected with the city as I entered the middle gallery, where the sculpture Sliced Cube No.2 (2011) sits atop what looks like a DIY bird table. Patterned in the red, green and yellow diamonds of the Harlequin, the work is a small, sticky-back plastic and polystyrene cube that has been sliced, halved and opened. As the Devil’s comic herald, the Harlequin is a recurring motif in Jones’ work, also appearing in an earlier monochromatic version (Cube No.1, 1998). On the ground nearby, holding what could be a Harlequin’s cuboid costume, is a handcrafted wooden box filled with the neatly organized discarded paper, tape and the artist’s rough sketches. In the far corner is a double-aspect dressing mirror hung at eye-level, implicating the viewer in the precise gallery arrangement. The amateurish handiwork is an indication of Jones’ ongoing preoccupation with the politics of display, in that it incorporates the plinth or frame as fundamental to the work, highlighting rather than ignoring its function. Due to this emphatic physicality of the handmade box, plinth and frame and the Harlequin’s recurring elusiveness, I cannot help but think of the artist himself as the cunning and controlling joker, dancing in circles of self-referentiality while mulling over the fate of Modernist Utopianism.
Positioned awkwardly in the centre of the adjacent gallery is a projector screening photographs used to advertise Milton Keynes to prospective habitants. The slideshow bobs through images of the city under construction, the comfortable regularity of housing estates, happy communities, shopping precincts, nauseating ’70s interior design and other idealized representations of the perfect hometown. Titled New City (2011), the work is a sequel to a 2003 exhibition of Jones’ in which he re-presented the drawings from the 1970s of the unbuilt city by the revered draughtsman Helmut Jacoby. This photographic essay is a present-day response to the past’s imaginings of an ideal future to come, with images of the vision realized. Watching the slideshow, I entered into a retrogressive temporal loop, seeing a renewed campaign calling out to new migrants for a future-perfect similar to Jones’ cyclical recall of past works. The odd placement of the projector forces viewers to crowd in the corner doorway of the large, otherwise empty gallery space. By controlling our movement, the architecture of the building is immediately more present, and recalls the highly controlled environment of the city outside.
The far gallery is empty but for a line of 12 framed pages from different issues of a 1971 issue of Observer Magazine, with stylish men smoking in Gitane cigarette adverts. (The artist also used them to illustrate an edition of Oscar Wilde’s 1890 The Picture of Dorian Gray, which was published by Four Corners Books in 2007.) Jones has done this with adverts before, but last time it was Lambert & Butler and smoked by far less camp couples at dinner parties. Visually they contrast starkly with the digital archive images in the Cube Gallery, yet thematically they touch upon similar issues of idealized representations employed to sell products and our desire to identify with them. The sparseness of the end room is a necessary relief from the threat of claustrophobia with each work signalling to another in the gallery – or in the artist’s oeuvre – in a double-bind of site-specificity and self-referentiality. The temporality of the works moves forward and back along both the city and the artist’s personal timeline; Jones not only historicizes the archival images, but situates his own work along a historical trajectory as a kind of 21st-century geomancy.