CLAUDE JONES: The surreal winged sculptures and meticulous fine-lined drawings and collages
of Claude Jones expose a vision of a sci-fi merging of species. Her sculptures and drawings are
a potent vehicle for her committed animal rights activism.
The interchange of body parts and experimental mixing of the animal, the plant, and humans in
her art reflects our changing genetic and psychological relationship with nature. In the face of
research and experimentation in the world of biotechnology, her poignant and provocative
works reveal a version of an increasingly possible reality of cloned and ‘designer’ beings to
The plight and toll on animals used for experiments underpins all her works. The concept of
these potential peculiar biologies and the creation of composite and mutant creatures have
been her focus since 2002 apparent in exhibitions titled Mutation & Imagination, Hybrid
states, Hybridism, Creature Couples, and Strange Things.
For Taxonomy in 2010 she again turns the spotlight on science’s escalating push for
homogenization of species and in particular on mankind’s double standards in the way animals
are categorized and treated. Taxonomy is the science of classification and is the system
applied to organizing living things into species. Claude Jones is responding to the complex
schizoid approach we take with animal classifications where at Christmas we buy the pet dog
and cat a present, but the pig and turkey are eaten at dinner.
With poignant role reversals perversely transposing animals as both perpetrators and victims,
she is exposing ingrained inconsistencies and contradictions: images of dog and monkey-faced
humanoids wield scalpels and guns, specimen jars and iron-barred cages confine a taunted cat
and monkey mutants and trouser-clad hares are suspended from meat hooks. Background
wallpapers are patterned with a ‘decorative’ recurring animal trap motif.
Distressing as the subject is, the artist renders the works in the way of storybook illustrations
and children’s playthings. The delicacy of the drawings and the soft colours, narrative format,
and child-like fairytale guise of these works subversively enhances the grim impact and the
reality of man’s perplexing duplicity.
Claude Jones undertook specialist international study programs and associated residencies to
develop her ceramic skills for Broken in 2014. The medium is apt for a body of work that takes
aim at the broken bodies and broken trust of man’s fragile compact with animals. A suite of
delicate floral firearms, baby-blue rifles, and pastel-pink shotguns are cast in fragile porcelain
clay. They are not toys and are aimed at anything but child’s play. The artist is signaling the mixed
messages and attitudes to animals that are, wittingly or not, imparted to children by adults.
Claude Jones’s works are held in the collections of the Art Gallery of New South Wales and
Artbank and international public and private collections.
(Published in Claude Jones: Recent works 2, 2016)
For the Love of Animals
Many of us … love animals. There are a few people who don’t, yet the vast majority of us love the dogs, the cats, and the wildlife that add richness to our lives.1
Like most people, I grew up loving animals. In addition to our household cat, I had numerous pets – frogs, lizards, rats, turtles, fish, a rabbit, and a family of adorable ducks. My childhood was replete with books about animals, animal toys, and images of cute and cuddly animals printed on fabrics and all manner of stationary. There were animal characters on TV – the friendly fuzzy puppets of “Sesame Street” and the “Muppet Show”. There were films about smart and intuitive animals like “Skippy” and “Lassie”. Animals were everywhere and they were mostly lovable individuals – affectionate, quirky, funny, moody, smart, shy … it was easy to see that other animals had personalities. Like humans, they were sentient beings with their own wants and needs.
… the observation that animals are sentient is different from saying that they are merely alive. To be sentient means to be the sort of being who is conscious of pain and pleasure; there is an “I” who has subjective experiences.2
Paradoxically, there I was, like most children, growing up believing I loved animals yet I was consuming animals and animal products daily without stopping to think about how those “products” came to be on my plate. Whilst my love of animals was fostered, my taste for animal products was simultaneously cultivated. It seemed that everyone around me subscribed to the doctrine that meat, milk, and dairy were “important” and “necessary” components of our everyday diet, and therefore not an issue to be questioned. As a young child, it was not even clear to me that meat came from slaughtered animals. This is not exactly a topic one’s parents are usually keen to discuss, and of course, the meat and dairy packaging falsely advertises happy healthy animals roaming freely in lush pastures. For some time, I could only assume that we ate them when they had died of old age.
…we attempt to compensate for the murder of our fellow sentient beings in bucolic images in stories and animated films of happy, healthy farm animals grazing and sunbathing in lush fields, joyously bounding about, scratching, sniffing the earth, cuddling their human companions, and so on.3
I soon came to understand the brutal truth and simply could not reconcile my love of animals with harming them, let alone killing them. With plenty of other food options to choose from, at age 16, I decided to become a vegetarian.
Much later, in 2010, I finally made the connection between all animal products and animal suffering and decided it was time to shift from vegetarianism to veganism. It seems an obvious thing, yet it so often goes under the radar that leather, fur, and some food products such as traditional rennet and gelatine are by-products, if not the main products, of animal agriculture. The vast majority of contemporary animal agriculture is on an industrial scale to accommodate the increasing demands of an exponentially growing world population, and of course, the more cramped the animals are, the more profitable it is. Thus, modern animal farming has bought with it oppressive terms like – “gestation stalls”, “battery hens”, “broiler hens”, “veal crates” and “feed lots”.
Farmers routinely …lock animals in tiny cages, mutilate their horns and tails, separate mothers from offspring, and selectively breed monstrosities.4
As a vegetarian, cheese was my favourite food, and eating dairy products had seemed so benign to me, yet this is far from the truth. Dairy cows are kept almost continually pregnant via artificial insemination, so that they can produce milk, not for their young, but for human consumption. It’s remarkable how many people don’t even consider that a cow must be pregnant to produce milk, as if cows were some rare breed of permanently milk-laden mammals. The calves that result from each pregnancy are taken from the cows almost immediately after birth at great distress to both mother and child. Male calves or ‘bobby calves” are destined to become veal for human consumption and they suffer immensely in their brief, miserable lives, bereft of their mother’s love. The mother cows continue this cycle of impregnation, birth, and calf separation until around 5-6 years of age, when they are deemed too old and are also sent to slaughter. A cow’s natural lifespan is about 20 years.
So what about eggs? Thanks to the great work of animal protection organisations, most of us are now aware of the horrific conditions endured by battery-laying hens. At the request of consumers, many supermarkets now only stock free-range, organic, and cage-free eggs. Whether these products are truly what they claim to be or not, this change reflects that humans will, where possible, choose the less cruel animal product. Whilst the latter egg varieties represent a huge improvement for egg-laying chickens, the cruel fate of male chicks sadly remains the same. The male offspring of the chicken industry, whether free range or battery, are considered unwanted by-products. These unfortunate chicks are separated from the females shortly after birth and then either “…thrown alive into electronic mincers or instantly gassed to death.” 5 A brief few moments of life followed by horrific death.
My transition to veganism not only heightened my awareness of the suffering of animals raised for food, leather, fur, and other products. In addition, I became increasingly aware of the exploitation of animals in science and medical laboratories, circuses, zoos, sport, hunting, in certain religious practices, and in numerous forms of animal entertainment. I developed a strong conviction of the need to reassess our relationship with animals, to consider their sentience, and to approach more ethical ways of co-existing with them. My art began to reflect the discourse of animal ethics, depicting various narratives of problematic and exploitative human–animal relationships. My mixed media paintings in particular were now more overtly political, examining controversial issues, raising questions about justice, ethics, and human accountability.
I find myself simultaneously fascinated and frustrated by our contradictory treatment of animals. Our human-centric perspective of the animal world positions rabbits, for example, as both cuddly companion animals but also as, laboratory specimens, meat and fur “products”. We support an industry that raises millions of pets that are accepted members of families yet trap, cage, torture and kill billions of animals annually for food, fur, leather etc. My work seeks to expose such obvious contradictions in the face of widespread, culturally ingrained acceptance of this schism.
Whilst my art focuses on animal social justice issues, it is also about oppression in the broader sense – denigrating, suppressing, hurting, and exploiting the “other”, both animal and human. This is apparent through the insistent use of anthropomorphism in my work. In the context of my narrative images, anthropomorphism serves as a reminder of both our similarities and differences in behavior to other animals. Animals and humans are depicted as both protagonists and victims. Given Western civilisations history of oppression – of women, children, ethnic minorities, people of colour – we can readily recognise oppressor and victim behaviour as distinctly human. Ironically, animals can only ever be victims in these narratives. They may prey on weaker animals for food, but they do not hunt other animals in order to drug them, cage them, and train them to fight, race, work or perform tricks, let alone slaughter them en masse.
Animal exploitation is analogous to the victimization of many “others” throughout Western “culture”. Whilst those “others” eventually were granted emancipation, animals remained captive, enslaved, and exploited at the hands of their human oppressors. Our belief in human supremacy has until recently, inhibited us from any serious consideration of the psychological, emotional, intuitive, cognitive, and communicative lives of other animals, (with the ironic exception being those companion animals with whom we happily share our homes). Attitudes are now changing with research continually providing evidence that animals are far more sentient, more complex, and intelligent than previously believed. Despite this, animal emancipation remains the last big social justice issue, the last frontier for the social incorporation of all “others”.
(Published in Claude Jones: Recent works 2, 2010)
A pronounced concern for all living creatures inhabits the work of Claude Jones. Based in Sydney, she is at once a sculptor, printmaker, and mixed media artist. The strangeness of her work resides in the interstitial spaces between different animal species, which become cut and spliced together to create bizarre and fantastical mutants.
Here we observe dogs, cats, birds, and rabbits, whose heads have been mounted onto human torsos, or which, incongruously, have been cut in half and joined with other animals. These biological engineering experiments result in new life forms, which Jones classifies within a new scientific taxomony: Lagomorph Canidaes, Equine Filidaes, Cattus Equus, and so forth. These crossbred creations exude an otherworldly pallor that speaks of science experiments – chemical, psychological, or biological – gone horribly awry. The hybrid mutants reflect our changing biological and psychological relationship to nature, in the face of increasing biotechnology.
The effectiveness of Jones’ imagery stems from her blurring of aesthetic boundaries. Each work functions at once as a dissertation on the ethical treatment of animals and as a whimsical pastiche of fairytale illustration. Cumulatively, they form a plaintive and tender appeal to our moral sympathies. Jones questions the domination of humankind over all animal life, and our assumed right to meddle with the natural order of other species. She imagines a world behind closed laboratory doors, whose inhabitants are as horrific as they are comical.
Jones’ hybrid sculptures are composed of a variety of materials, including clay, doll parts, feathers, and paper mache. They range in appearance from awkward, misshapen newborns (the Neonates) to elegant and refined (the Lagomorphs). At first seemingly harbingers of spellbinding wonder, the fruit of some Frankenstein-like process, the works slowly reveal their secrets. In Equine Filidae (2010), which proposes an unnatural melding of cat and horse, we observe a coat composed of pictures of bear traps. Rather than fantastic imp, the quirky creature reveals itself as a talisman of human mistreatment of animals.
Elsewhere, we encounter similar signs of malcontent. A mixed media work shows a monkey pointing a rifle at the head of a mother rabbit, her three children huddled around her in terror. In another work, we see a caged baby monkey being handed between rabbits, while another image shows a family of birds poking fun at a caged owl. All animals have human form, suggesting a breakdown in the cosmic order, and ever-present is the apparatus for capturing and quantifying wildlife: traps, cages, and leashes. The aura of scientific curiosity is purposefully allayed by the bright colours and childlike juxtapositions of form, but throughout an uneasy mood is in place.
In what might be termed Sci-Fi Fantasy Realism, Claude Jones’ hybrids elude easy description. Each is imbued with a unique personality and behaviour, just as each occupies a different tier in the taxonomy of life. Jones inverts the natural order by rupturing the gene pool and suggests instead what a world governed by biological misadventure may look like. The results are sometimes troubling but are never short of being explosively imaginative. There are few facets to enable a collective summation, except to advise alertness, not alarm. While fabulously fantastical in form, these schizoid creatures occupy a world that is unerringly analogous to our own.
(Published in Chimera, 2011)
The surreal, winged sculptures, and meticulous fine-lined drawings and collages of Claude Jones expose a vision of a Frankenstein-like mingling of species.
The surgical cutting and inserting of parts, the experimental mixing of the animal, the plant and the human in her works reflects our changing genetic and psychological relationship with nature. In the face of research and experimentation in the world of biotechnology her poignant and provocative works reveal a version of an increasingly possible reality of cloned and ‘designer’ beings to order.
The impact for future species and mankind and the plight and toll on animals used for experiments underpins all these works. The concept of these potential peculiar biologies and the creation of hybrid and mutant creatures has been her focus since 2002, with exhibition titles like Mutation & Imagination, Hybrid states, Hybridism, Creature Couples and Strange Things.
With a series of large sardonic and compelling narrative drawings and thought provoking taxidermic sculptures for her 2010 solo exhibition, Taxonomy, she again turned the spotlight as well as the tables, on science’s escalating push for homogenisation of species, and in particular on man’s double standards in the way animals are categorized and treated.
Taxonomy is the science of classification and is the system applied to organizing living things into species. Claude Jones is questioning the schizoid taxonomic approach we take with animals; at Christmas we buy the dog a present, but the pig and turkey are eaten at lunch.
In the spirit of animal rights activism and with poignant role reversal, in these provocative metre square works on paper and series of sculptures, dog and monkey-faced humanoids wield scalpels and guns, specimen jars and steel bars confine taunted cat and monkey mutants and trouser-suited hares are suspended from meat hooks. The wallpaper background is patterned with animal traps.
Distressing as the subject is, the artist cleverly renders the works in the way of storybook illustrations. The delicacy of drawing and the beautiful soft colours and child-like fairytale guise of these works potently enhances the grim impact and the reality of man’s perplexing duplicity.
(Published in Claude Jones: Recent works, 2010)
Fields and Herds
The European imaginary view of the Antipodes depicted a place inhabited by fantastical monsters; colonisation did little to change this, for Australia was populated with exotic creatures such as the platypus and kangaroo that to the European eye were indeed strange hybrids.
Then comes a quadruped as big as a large cat, with the eyes, colour, and skin of a mole, and the bill and web-feet of a duck — puzzling Dr Shaw, and rendering the latter half of his life miserable, from his utter inability to determine whether it was a bird or a beast. This marriage of the imaginary and the real has become part of this country’s psyche, and peculiar hybridities, a focal point for several contemporary artists including Claude Jones. She, like others such as Patricia Piccinini, Fiona Hall and Louise Weaver, has mined the symbology of mutations to examine notions of taxonomy, gene modification and exoticism.
Jones’s early works resonated closely with the early naturalists’ whimsical fascination with hybridity and resulted in prints of strange, delicate botanical and biological monstrosities set in dark, unchartered landscapes where a seamless construction of reality revealed their artificial nature. Unlike her recent sculpture, her early assembled works were deliberately awkward in their construction and this rawness exposed their artificiality; oddly this seemed to be the reverse strategy to that found in her prints from the same period.
While her use of traditional print technologies and formats continues to speak of past realities and reflect her interest in the grotesque and the beautiful, now, Jones states that her foremost concern is the ethical treatment of animals. This, it seems, is a natural progression after her prolonged examination of methods of taxonomy has revealed the absurd and sometimes destructive hierarchies inherent in such systems. Though her work still focuses on the hybrid and retains a whimsical quality, a dark content has replaced the dark landscape.
One is drawn to Jones’s prints by her deft manipulation of large fields of lush and intensely vibrant colour and borrowed prints. This gives the work a poster-like quality, particularly in the large prints from 2009 such as Flowering Raborse, where the hybrid creatures appear like crests on a flag. Her most recent prints that were first shown at Artereal gallery in Sydney in 2010 seem slightly sinister. The fields of colour, while still retained, have taken on elements of domestic settings – the suggestion of floorboards, the repetition of patterns that suggest wallpaper. They appear as if oversized pages from a children’s picture book, but these are allegories for adults.
The 2010 large print Endangered Species is both powerful and disturbing. The square format, which is rarely used, gives the impression that the viewer is a voyeur privy to a scene that goes on behind closed doors; but one is not an innocent observer because the terrible act has not yet been completed. The origins of Jones’s concern with humans’ treatment of animals are revealed here in several ways. We are trapped here, the hybrid creatures in the scenario are trapped, this is borne out by the artist’s subtle use of one of the most horrendous of devices used against animals - the bear trap – as repetitive wallpaper design, even more insidious because of its beige hue. This seemingly innocuous background only serves to intensify the action of the players in the foreground. While the narrative can be read on a superficial level as a difference of opinion between two species – the chimpanzee (who perhaps stands in for homo sapiens) and the rabbit, Jones does not let it rest there. The monkey man would appear to be aiming the gun at the mother of his own children as his clothing is of the same cut and colour as theirs. Jones’s seamless positioning of the nineteenth century etching reproductions against the flattened, cartoon-like block colour dramatizes the intensity of the relationships of the figures. One is forced to read these creatures as both animal and human, one is alerted to the reality of animals having family and group relationships like us; similarly, founded on depth and intimacy. The artist’s literal anthropomorphizing of animals points to her belief that they have the same potential for emotional response and morality that we do. And while one might understand this as speculative fancy, it is a debate that rages within today’s contemporary scientific community.
The scientist Marc Bekoff argues that while we seem to accept evidence for a certain level of animal intelligence, any suggestion of an emotional acuity is difficult for us to swallow. He has documented cases of animals mourning, noting changes in behaviour after the death of an individual in flocks of magpies and parades of elephants. Moreover, recent findings by biologists at the University of Washington show evidence of cross-species social behaviour with crows found to recognize human faces. Others dismiss such claims as anecdotal sentimentality. Jones, however, is able to prompt serious discussion of animal rights precisely because of a veil of sentimentality.
While Jones’ prints concentrate on our relationships with animals as pets and food, her sculptures carry this further and critique our use of them as fashion and commercialised products. Works such as Cattus Equus appeal to one’s sense of desire for the designer object including pets, particularly one’s longing for objects customized to suit the individual (the latest commodification strategy driving mass production). Cattus and its altered twin Equine Felidae prance like unnatural show ponies and their miniature scale and life-like crystal blue eyes allude to something rare and precious – they are delightful curiosities. But here again, Jones disrupts our prurient pleasure with a subversive strategy similar to the wallpaper motifs in Endangered Species; these creatures appear to have hides made of fish scales or bird feathers, but in the case of Cattus each feather carries the print of an human embryo suggesting our genetic manipulation of animals has at its origins in our own drive for perfection. Alternatively, Equine Felidae’s coat bares the same device found in Endangered Species, the bear trap, directing us towards the cruel origins of manufactured beauty. The goal of human and individual perfection is revealed as ruthless and ethically questionable.
The smooth elegant deer bodies of Lagomorph Canidae (blue) and Lagomorph Canidae (pink) divulge the present-day museum’s use of the fibre-glass animal frame and in doing so, also reveal the hidden violence of its collection. The pink and blue of the works’ titles and the rabbit heads that can only be read as fur collars, once again suggest a secondary collection, one of fashion. The artist’s entwinement of the two types of collection implies that the purpose and design of the natural history museum’s collection is as frivolous as the whims of couture.
Claude Jones’s works ask the viewer to believe in the existence (if not now, at least in the past or future) of the artist’s fabricated anomalies. It is this questioning of the nature of reality, the construction of new fictions, and the power of the imaginary that provides one with a palatable space from which to scrutinize one’s position in the herd.
(Published in Claude Jones: Recent works, 2010)