by Ashura Bayyan
There is an ongoing discussion regarding Blackness in contemporary art and politics: Should an African-American artist make work that reflects Blackness and is representative of the entire race, or should they embrace a personal modernism and liberate their aesthetic from the bounds of a singular identity. Jennie C. Jones’ mid-career survey at the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston does not explicitly conform to one view or the other, yet, it does provides a soft and reflective insight into the culture that defines her identity and informed eleven years of her artistry. The exhibited works do not bear the burden of being representative of Black culture, nor do they need to. There is ample space in the contemporary art world for Jones’ voice within any multicultural discourse, with no explanation, on any topic, including the history of jazz.
Jones’ featured works explore the physicality behind music, from production and consumption, to distribution. She focuses on the products of the African-American jazz musicians from her youth, and the tools used to experience that music. It is a much more specific area of focus than most abstract artists will dedicate an entire career to, but the result is not too monotonous. Examining a broad aesthetic grouping we will discover that champions of geometric and lyrical abstraction like Ellsworth Kelly, Norman Bluhm, and Kazimir Malevich tended to explore pure non-objective, non-representational compositions of human life, landscape, architecture, and simplification of natural forms. Seldom do we find an obsession with such a particular inanimate subject group, and even more rare is for that subject group to be the focus of an entire body of work. This specificity guarantees that Jones’ art will not be confused or generalized with the work of other contemporary artists, for better or worse she is dedicated to asserting her unique interest, and she truly believes in the direction of her work. The exhibition showcases Jones’ range, maintains its clarity of subject matter, all while highlighting her aesthetic across multiple forms and mediums including minimalist sculptures, abstract drawings, color field painting and digital micro sampling of vinyl recordings.
Walk into the CAHM and the first thing you see is a long wall immediately separating you from whatever is beyond in the museum space. It’s essentially bare, but to the left there is the artist name listed above the exhibition abstract, and to the right is a massive black square with a dark red strip trailing down the left border, in the bottom right corner of the blackness is the iconic Blue Note Records logo. These solid blocks of color form the crop section from a Blue Note LP album cover. This is the one and only wall painting in the entire exhibition, and will prove to be very important as a historical document for understanding the origin of Jones’ color field paintings. Her use of solid rectangular bands, and a restricted color palette closely mirror the iconic design of 1950’s Blue Note cover art. A soft crackle rattles throughout the building, raining from speakers hidden high in the rafters, not music, but the rough scratch of a vinyl record on repeat. This audio piece is both an ode to the nostalgia and novelty of using vinyl, and an explicit introduction to the era of music that Jones’ work stands in conversation with.
In a speech at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Jones talks about a time where she was struggling for content, working to justify her aesthetic and trying to figure out the meaning behind the work that she was making. Once she realized that she was spending more time curating her playlist than she was defining her content, it was clear that the music she played in her studio was the source of her content. After this, she began to investigate the relationship of form in art to the music that is played in the studio during the creation of art. Regarding Jazz, she determined that non geometric abstract art is the equivalent of the improvised and organic jazz sound, while geometric art is representative of the composed and formal song structure found in a modern jazz quartet. When people talk about classic jazz albums, they often say the music has “space”. Jones tries to reproduce a sense of space in the overall dynamic of her painted compositions. Her acrylic paintings, which she calls “Acoustic Paintings”, are composed using monochromatic canvases with sound-absorbing panels. Her “Soft Gray Tone with Reverberation #2”, is a hard gray and yellow acrylic on canvas with a gray absorber panel mounted on-top and towards the left of the frame. There’s a strict distinction between the forms, and to continue the metaphor this piece may reflect the formal song structure of the jazz quintet. Each of the paintings on display has a similar unassuming form, sound panels mounted atop a restricted acrylic color palette. The only differences being in the irregular shapes of the canvases, some are perfectly square, while some a thin and rectangular, and a few are triangular. The paintings have depth, each provides its own sustained suspense based on the spatial location of the shapes, and the appropriation of the absorber panels is clever, so improvisational, but its use as an element of the geometric composition seems highly derivative.
Along the outer walls of the gallery are the collages, each grouped in sets made between 2004 and 2014, and varying in size. The most interesting set amongst the collage drawings is “Sony Walkman Auto Reverse Green” an arrangement of elemental shapes, abstracted from the formal design of a Sony Walkman. It’s a consist of 12 parts, which show the same item at different points of abstraction, the forms range from highly recognizable shapes to increasingly unorganized arrangements. The relation of these drawings to the work of other artist is very interesting. The style of abstraction is reminiscent of both Kasimir Malevich’s the Russian Suprematist, and Ellsworth Kelly the American Minimalist. Malevich, the pioneer of Suprematism, a Russian avant-garde movement, had a style characterized by a non representational and abstracted heightening of society through art. Kelly emphasized a simplicity in form across both painting and sculpture, he is noted for his use of shaped canvases and minimalist aesthetic. Using extensive white space, and simple representative colors based on real-life observations from the Walkman design, Jones places her work in conversation with both the history of avant-garde abstraction and consumer technology. The collages grouped together are impressive, but alone they are sure to be less powerful and less interesting. None of the visual representations are necessarily original, virtually every abstract design or composition can clearly be traced to the product that they reference. Jones does nothing to hide the relationship though, many of the works have titles clearly naming the original (“Sony Walkman”, “Solid State”). She is a force for her derivatives of original products because she has devised a very specific subject matter within the contemporary abstract canon.
Jones’ work communicates her literal obsession with the byproducts of jazz music, from music production to distribution and even album cover design, her conceptual sculptures continue to build on a practice of minimalism and reappropriation. Each of the sculptures on display represent specific objects within the vocabulary of music consumption, common materials, such as CD cases, LP sleeves, and headphone wires. This “physical residue” is Jones’ muse, and it’s reflected clearly in both “Spider Trio (for Louis)” and “The Gentle Influence of the Bourgeoisie (Trombone Improvisation)”, the first is basically a group of wire cd holders held together with felt while the other is a plastic CD rack flipped upside-down. Found objects created using common materials. Although it’s not nearly interesting enough to remember this is the most literal representation of music byproduct as art object. “Song Containers”, another sculpture set, is the most interesting piece in the show. Jones has taken the recognizable forms of 8-track cases, compact disc, cassette tapes, and gatefold LP covers, and recast them in brushed aluminum. It’s the same simple, minimal form which has become trademark throughout this exhibition, but each of these explores a playful concept which lends directly to Jones’ intent. Tucked on an awkward shelf near the front of the gallery, they look like toys. The aluminum designs are sleek, alluring, and easy to recognize at quick glance without losing any of the original intent or integrity. There’s ten editions of each totaling forty small sculptures, the sheer quantity suggest that this is these are most important work on display, albeit the smallest. Scaled appropriately these would make admirable outdoor sculptures, in class with the public commissions of the recently deceased Ellsworth Kelly.
As a comprehensive contemporary art exhibition the “Jennie C. Jones: Compilation” is exceptional, it’s an immersive visual and audible experience, with many points of entry for someone who many not be learned in the history of art, jazz music, or contemporary blackness. At its core this is a jazz inspired show, which exemplifies the differences in popular music taste over the past three generations. The fascination is with record engineering and the technical aspects of the recordings, which means the equipment and how the finished product is going to sound. There is an obvious nostalgia in subject matter, which makes one mull over what would be the result if Jones’ focus was redirected to modern technology, and the popular music of today. Consider the differences in visual representation when examining analog tech in the form of records and cd’s, versus abstraction in the modern download economy where albums and records may never leave the screen of a smartphone? Regardless, this work is good, Houston has endorsed it, and Jones will never again need to justify her aesthetic. In previous talks Jones has discussed Modernism which is usually associated with art in which the traditions of the past have been thrown aside in a spirit of experimentation, she is noted for saying about the Jazz era that “the contribution of African American artist to modernism was absent in visual art and was more-so audible, through the music of the time”, it seems that as a retroactive response to this she has attempted to fill part of that visual gap, by discarding the the demands of modern music and highlighting specific aspects of a genre past its pop-culture heyday.
Ashura Bayyan-Lovelady is an award winning, triple platinum, grammy nominated, cheerleader prom dating, globe trotting prince from the Northside of Houston, Tx. Soon after his miraculous birth in 1992 he quickly decided the most important thing in life would be to find out why he was brought here. During his crusade he left a trail of beauty and revolution across the globe 1.5 times. It is written that he found his purpose through a message from the stars as a child, “To deliver unto the world, Aesthetic Liberty”.