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Artist Steven Bernard Jones alters the world in absorbing Austin map show

Michael Barnes
Austin 360
Sculptor Steven Bernard Jones alters wall maps, highway maps, globes and walls with curious black blobs that could be interpreted as viruses, flowers, fruit, splats, outer space aliens — or just wonderful doodles.

By his own account, Steven Bernard Jones likes to doodle.

Best known as a sculptor and educator, Houston-born Jones doodles away blissfully, often with a Sharpie marker, an activity that inevitably teaches and pleases those who view the results.

His cohesive solo show, "Zero to Sixty" at Lydia Street Gallery, is not large. Split between two rooms, it nevertheless merits sustained scrutiny.

In this show, Jones alters wall maps, highway maps, globes and gallery walls with curious black blobs that could be interpreted as meaningful images — or just plain, wonderful doodles.

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A first stroll past the 28 pieces reminds us that Jones, who taught in Central Texas for 20 years, employs a pop sensibility that makes one smile, but also suggests an underlying feeling of alarm.

Let's start with three small desk globes of the world, rendered black and embedded with playing dice. Do the numbers mean anything? Does the doomsday clock start to tick in our minds?

Jones embeds caps from beer bottles in regular patterns around another blackened globe. A virus?

Nearby, Jones has attached furry limbs that resemble pipe cleaners to baseballs suspended from the ceiling. They look like spiders or space aliens. 

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On the walls in both rooms, Jones hangs perforated blobs cut out of flat wood or acrylic. At first, they seem abstract, biomorphic forms, but then you notice that the patterns are more machined and that some of the blobs could double as ancient masks.

There's one straightforward painting in the show: Thick black outlines fields of red, green, yellow and other hues. At first, I did not notice that, in fact, fragments of topographic maps can be detected underneath. The theme continues to develop.

Born in Houston, sculptor Steven Bernard Jones worked and taught in Austin for 20 years.

Maps are, after all, the stars of the show. Jones' blob-like patterns play over wall maps and highway maps of the world, the U.S., Los Angeles, Europe, Scandinavia, New York, New Jersey, Texas and Virginia. He turns some maps on their sides.

Although the information on the maps seems up to date, some of the wall maps feel old-fashioned, like the ones that used to be on permanent display in schoolrooms. Maybe they still are. Some maps show zones of elevation, rainfall, population, etc.; others emphasize political boundaries. 

A singular map includes tools for location and direction skills, as well as a town illustrated in the manner of the SimCity computer game.

Jones overlays all these with blobs that echo the shapes of the wall sculptures. 

What are they?

I love a mystery, and I'm delighted to report that Jones' artist statement does not give his project away. He thinks about social and political issues and is alert to what his images could mean to him as an African American man seeking freedom and joy through art. But he is not explicit.

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I kept a mental list of what I saw in the black blobs that blot out parts of the colorful maps: sea invertebrates, viruses, flowers, fruit, insects, arachnids, theatrical masks and, especially aliens from outer space. At times, the blobs seem like giant storms on a doomsday weather map, or visualized warnings about the harmful effects of an unnamed human activity.

Who knows if any of this is intended? Yet Jones' images absorbed me online even before I visited the Lydia Street Gallery — where they are given plenty of air and balance — and they continue to absorb me.

Maybe in the end, they are just doodles. That might be the most marvelous meaning of all.

Michael Barnes writes about the people, places, culture and history of Austin and Texas. He can be reached at mbarnes@statesman.com.

'Steven Bernard Jones: Zero to Sixty'

When: Noon to 5 p.m. Saturday-Sunday and by appointment Monday-Friday, through Sept. 16. (Jones will be in town for a reception on Aug. 27 and available for appointments Aug. 28-29)

Where:  Lydia Street Gallery, 1200 E. 11th St., No. 109

Cost: Free

Info: lydiastreetgallery.com