The New Visual Language of Josh Tonies

This text was written for publication in New Visual Language by Josh Tonies, published by Encyclopedia Destructica in 2007.

“I had poured a great deal of emotion into the piece, and obviously I wasn’t communicating this at all. Or else, I thought, if I were communicating, then all artists must be speaking a different language, and thus speaking only for themselves. The whole musical situation struck me more and more as a Tower of Babel.” –John Cage on his 1944 composition "The Perilous Night" 
as quoted in The Music of John Cage by James Pritchett

Cage, at this point in his profoundly influential trajectory through music and art, had recently begun composing for the prepared piano, an instrument he invented by strategically applying nuts, bolts, rubber, weather stripping, and other ephemera to the strings of a piano in order to modulate the sounds produced by various keys. The Perilous Night was a cathartic composition, a site of cleansing and healing for an emotionally turbulent period in Cage's life. Given his work’s forthcoming transformation from predetermined compositions to indeterminate musical situations, it seems that Cage did lose faith in the one-to-one communicative possibilities of music. He abandoned the idea that a piece of art could serve as a faithful psychological and emotional conduit from author to audience.

The complex and varied results of Josh Tonies’ creative practice also find their generative imperative in catharsis. Hardly anything in his evolving oeuvre can lay claim as explicitly autobiographical or even overtly personal; Tonies’ emotional processing is embedded in the structures determined by his materials. As a hunter/gatherer of images and sounds, a devotee of bricolage and transmutation, Tonies seeks comfort in destabilization and stability in transition. His catharsis is not depicted by his images but rather embodied in their history of redefinitions.

I first met Josh in a group exhibition at Future Tenant Gallery in 2004. Pittsburgh artist Jessica Fenlon curated us into a show centered on collaborative drawing installation. Drawing on the walls together, taking imagery as jump-off points for more imagery, combining and colliding styles: this was an ideal access point for getting to know Josh, who very much lives and breathes in relationship to the voyages and discoveries of his creative practice. He is more fluidly articulate with visual processes than with words. Our hours of installation were hours of conversation: personality and character were manifest in form, material, and decision. The project initiated our friendship, which soon led to a collaborative studio and living arrangement. For over a year we worked in the same studio space, a converted living room in our row house on the outskirts of Bloomfield.

Josh and I have been throwing around the idea of a New Visual Language for the past three years. I can’t say how long before that the topic occupied his mind. One permanent fixture in our collaborative studio was a small hand-bound sketchbook that was intended to serve as a containing space for the evolution of our thoughts on visual communication. We painted, drew, collaged, and debated with great intensity in that studio, but the book remained largely empty. Once every couple weeks its pages would accrue a new snippet of text, a sketch, but mostly the format intimidated us. A book is so condensed, cohesive, and conclusive, and it seemed that the project was more expansion than contraction. We were prodigiously building our visual languages in our work; the book’s value was less in its utility than in its symbolic presence, a nod to our grandiose aspirations as artists. How exciting, then, to see this project finally realized, smartly reformulated on Josh’s terms, with the careful and compassionate guidance of Encyclopedia Destructica.

It is important to consider what is actually meant by a “new visual language.” Language implies standardized conventions, and while hints of standardization may appear in the following pages I think it would be inaccurate to say that Tonies is aiming to create an airtight expressive paradigm. If anything, his compiled visual approaches promote the opposite: an inclusive paradigm of flexibility. The blunt simplicity of our visual languages solidifies the rigidity of normative culture, and it is the attendant deadening of perception that both frustrates Josh and motivates his interventions.

When Josh is talking about paintings that are in progress or excitedly explaining his plans for a new series, it sounds like he is talking about organizing a manual or building a computer program. It is always “information this” and “information that.” Josh is forever talking about information, whether he is actually referring to a photograph, a color scheme, a brush stroke, or a method of markmaking. It is worth noting that his visual information has no statistical or data-driven analogue, meaning that he is not imaging information the way that a cartographer would do so (though cartography is a persistent metaphor in his practice). He is actually speaking about a visual subject or surface as though it is information. This method of articulating the variables at play speaks succinctly to Josh’s intellectual engagement as a visual artist. It isn’t so much the juxtaposition of divergent forms that makes a Tonies composition resonate, but rather, the precision and subtlety with which he is able to cultivate their coming together. He weaves together images using carefully considered but traditionally irrational assessments of their informative contents. One of Josh’s sharpest and most defining skills is his ability to scour his ever-swelling reference material, his antiquated National Geographic magazines, piles of Xeroxed photographs, optics illustrations, instructional manual diagrams, and view each outside of its own frame of reference as a kind of pure visual information which can be extracted, molded, absorbed, and informed by remote contexts and processes.

From knowing Josh so intimately I speculate that his extraordinary abilities with images are directly related to his ongoing search for ways of adequately explaining, to himself, his own emotional and psychological terrain. Other interests always enter the work but I believe this is the heart of his cathartic experiences with art, and it is this journey that formulates his strategies on more intellectual levels. His iterative manipulations to images – stenciling, cutting, projecting, tracing, Xeroxing, printing, painting – do not cease until he has arrived at a visual space that accommodates his perception. As John Cage couldn’t say what he wanted to with a piano until he entangled its strings, skewing their notes so that they might evoke more specifically, so Josh Tonies is constantly preparing his own instruments to become adequate vessels of his often turbulent emotional life. There have been times when I have been his closest friend and yet his internal experiences completely evade his ability to articulate them to me. He is prone to driving to undisclosed locations to search for resonant chords on his accordion by himself, and on many occasions it seems that he has arrived at peace of mind, or clarity of understanding, through continuous long nights alone in his studio.

And it is here, sixty years later, that Josh finds himself hitting the very wall that transformed John Cage’s practice. It is here that we can locate his fascination with language, and his persistent desire (however abstract) to invent a more accurate one. What happens to all this creative processing upon its reception by an outside audience? Are the motivating forces intact or are they lost in translation? In October of this year Josh emailed me in a moment of frustration:

“I just don’t trust the external sphere as a reflex to what I’m internally processing and externalizing. I don’t want to altogether stop making artwork, but ‘fixing myself by making work’ is not a paradigm that I want to cultivate into a continued show and tell.”

This conflict between internal and external forces has long been a dilemma for Josh. He has often considered putting a halt on his exhibitions and declining to share the products of his studio practice. Like Cage, it is a question of priority: is he more interested in expressing himself or communicating? Things grow more complicated when critical reception enters the equation, attaching judgment or determinations to the work that alter its intent.

I don’t know how Josh will resolve this conflict, or whether or not he will continue trying to resolve it. He is a mature artist and he’s cognizant of the flaw in thinking that expression and communication are discrete poles in the dynamic of artmaking. His concerns are literally embodied in his work, though, and as his posture toward his life changes, we can expect his work to adjust accordingly. From the quote I share above it seems possible that this hunt for adequate vessels of expression may be over; he has either found them with some amount of clarity, or he is no longer in need of such vigorous psychological investigation and is in search of other meaningful uses of his creative energy.

This publication has been transformative for Josh in that it has given him the space and motivation to enmesh older strategies with new experiments and multiple formats, all in one accessible package that is dispersible to hundreds of audiences of one. He seems very clear on the notion that this volume is a period at the end of a long sentence, and equally clear that he has no idea where or how the next sentence begins. This New Visual Language project is the most definitive manifestation of Josh’s practice yet, and I suspect that within these pages there are multiple vantage points from which to consider the dialectic of expression and communication upon which this book was built. It is thrilling for me to consider the hours of deliberation, scores of failures, stacks of images, turning points, obfuscations, insights and reveries that proceeded the final binding. All of that is here, none of it is here, and so much more is here, too.

Adam Grossi November 25, 2007 Chicago, Illinois