The upcoming auction for the Estate of Ted Jonsson has allowed us to celebrate Jonsson as a prolific South Australian artist who produced works of regeneration and innovation. The physical boundaries he crossed in his childhood while travelling with his parents translated to his art, with no limitations on his use of materials or their source. Jonsson exhibited at many well-known galleries in Adelaide throughout the 80s, 90s and early 2000s, with one of these being Greenaway Art Gallery. For Jonsson’s 1994 exhibition, John Neylon – artist, curator and author/art writer, wrote a detailed review of the exhibition, including the artist’s journey to Australia and insights into the creative mind behind the captivating sculptures and assemblages.
Read the 1994 review below:
Greenaway Art Gallery, Adelaide, Australia
16 November – 7 December 1994
Review by John Neylon
“Adelaide, the capital city of South Australia trades on its isolation from the large communities of Melbourne and Sydney. It considers that it has the right formula to sustain a creative cultural environment; its internationally recognised Adelaide Festival, a balance between urban and rural environments, ease of access to North Terrace precinct where the state’s visual arts heritage is concentrated, a strong contemporary tradition of artists’ collectives and a record of exporting but also attracting talented individualistic artists, among them Ted Jonsson.
Jonsson’s route to Adelaide was like his sculptures, full of interesting twists and turns. He was born in Stockholm, Sweden and spent most of his childhood and early teenage years travelling in Europe and Scandinavia with parents who were performing acrobats with circus companies in Europe. This life of constant travel bred a restlessness which saw Jonsson joining the navy at 15, undertake studies at the School of Commercial Art, Stockholm, work as a chef with the Royal Swedish Navy, undertake a carpentry apprenticeship and work as a Trades School teacher in Stockholm. He arrived in Sydney in 1971, moved to Adelaide in 1973 and began working as a subcontract carpenter, painting and sculpting in his spare time.
The artist has continued to exhibit regularly from 1986 to the present day. Given that some one-person exhibitions have consisted of around thirty pedestal and relief sculptures, this represents a significant commitment in time and effort, something that perhaps can only be understood in terms of making up for lost time. Jonsson had turned 50 before presenting his first one person exhibition and the professional and personal needs to build up a body of work have been great. With the 1994 Greenaway Gallery exhibition it was possible to review the artist’s development across a short but productive working life. This collection of sculptural reliefs and freestanding assemblages drew together a spectrum of interests and methodologies which have characterised of his output to the present day.
European artists who came to colonial South Australia brought with them unique skills and tastes which added complexity and diversity to local cultural life. The German and Scandinavian migrants who set up business in the mid nineteenth century combined skills in fashioning silver, gold and semi-precious stones with a passionate interest in indigenous flora and fauna to produce some remarkable sculptures such as the presentation pieces, on regular display at the Art Gallery of South Australia. These fabulously entwined and encrusted conflations of Australiana are over-rich by today’s tastes, but their love of excess provides a cultural context for Jonsson’s equally ornate assemblages. Post-Second World European migrants brought with them the liberating and critical modes of surrealism and atomic age expressionism. But the folk traditions which inform Jonsson’s art were never far from the surface in the work of this earlier generation of artists. Paintings by the Czech surrealist artist, Dusan Marek share Jonsson’s style of building an image from fragments and absurdist relationships using a style-mix of surrealist sophistication and faux naivety.
Jonsson continues to work with junk. Viewing his sculptures and reliefs is an archaeological exercise, recognising, sifting and sorting a treasure trove of oddments; hand tools, door handles and knobs, fragments of glass and crockery, pieces of weathered timber salvaged from old buildings, old toys and fragments of clothing. Viewing is invariably layered with associations. He sketches ideas for his constructions, sometimes while on a building site at his ‘regular’ job as constructions site carpenter. At times he find himself gazing up at roof trusses being raised into position and finds himself marvelling at the beauty of their design. But the business of making a relief sculpture is another matter. It usually means letting go the sketch and turning the process over to a more instinctive response to structural and aesthetic possibilities. The ready-made, rough-hewn qualities of the finished work reflect Jonsson’s trade background but the artist often plays off aggressively weathered or decayed surfaces against filigree details and soft materials such as felt to build the visual complexity. In this sense of providing visual entertainment he has perhaps never left the circus.
An earlier exhibition incorporated a basement installation related to the Gulf War. It was a chamber of horrors, alluding in its barbed-wire entanglements, post industrial detritus and fitful lighting to the morals of realpolitik. Local perceptions of Jonsson’s work changed. Where once it has been possible to regard his work as idiosyncratic, black at the edges and reflecting norther European introspection and broodiness, the personal and social subtexts of his work began to speak to a wider audience. There were a number of sculptures in the most recent exhibition which engaged with social issues. Down by the Riverside incorporated a bandaged swan floating near a broken beer bottle and a backdrop of rubbish and decay. This work was a reminder of the antithetical elements which invest the artist’s work with tension; the association of junk with rubbish and throw-away values and the process of regenerating or retrieving discards and rejects. Somewhere in these exchanges are autobiographical references; the artist retrieving the fragments of scattered experience and constructing a new life.
The narrowness of this boundary between inner life and outer events was most apparent in Estonia, a pictorial relief depicting the hull of a (model) boat floating beneath the moon. Jonsson nominates the Baltic sea ferry disaster as the source of this work. As he describes; “You put yourself into other people’s feelings and situations… it got a bit closer to me. I began to think about what it would be like to be a person trapped in an air pocket in a cabin.” Jonsson the ex-sailor, taking another bit of the world onto his shoulders. But the act of empathy is always a considered one; “I can jump on and off. I do that constantly.” And as for the occasional heart-on-the-sleeve statements, the artist applies a corrective; “I don’t try to change the world. I stand on the sidelines and look at things. I call what’s there.”
Other works; In the Head of an Architect, Peep Show and Machiavellian Tower reflected the artist’s enduring love of architecture and architectural systems. He once considered collecting architect’s drawings and continues to work in the shadow of this tradition. Head of an Architect consisted of a dwelling-like structure complete with corrugated iron roof and stained glass window inset. Its mordant humour signposted Jonsson’s ambivalence about designing and making important civic structures while parodying the follies which emanate from architect’s heads. These works represented a significant shift in format and content from earlier works nearby, namely; Big Brother and Welcome.
Both took his audience back to the late 80s style of building figurines and masks from strips of metal hammered onto wooden forms. These nuggety figures, looking like trolls from a dark, northern forest maintained a powerful presence within this exhibition. Reminders of more primal or archaic ballast which keeps his vision steady in water. Jonsson cuts a distinctive figure within an Adelaide art community which likes its artists to be socially engaged but finds difficulty in translating this preference into patronage. Jonsson continues to subvert this stand-off, using wit and finely hones technical skills to ease viewers into a collusion of imaginations while alluding to the darkness in human hearts. It’s a unique balancing act which deserves a large spotlight.”
21 February 2022, 5:30PM