Shhh is the title of one of Jennie C. Jones’ series, but it may very well be a directive: Shhh. Look. And listen.
Objects, Jones’ autonomous installation within Shift at the Studio Museum in Harlem, consists of two series and a site-specific work that reveal themselves slowly. Upon first glance, the objects are unassuming, simple forms made of metal and black line. However, a few minutes of looking (and listening) reveals a quietly radical rethinking of Minimalist aesthetic. In her work, Jones revisits the legacy of Minimalism through the lens of sound production and postwar African-American musical contributions.
Song Containers certainly fit the Minimalist aesthetic: four pairs of miniature monoliths stand upright on a white pedestal. To make the series, Jones reproduced vessels for music—LP sleeves, tape cassette liner notes, and 8-track cases—as mechanically-reproduced aluminum sculptures. They remind us of the packaging we used to cherish, pore over, and embellish our walls with, but are now, with the advent of iTunes and mp3s, obsolete.
Jones has also made these song containers obsolete, but in a different way. They’ve been converted into anonymous, abstract objects that sit in a gallery, removed from our nostalgic touch. Stripped of words and images, these objects could be anything: the tape cassette liner notes become oversized matchbooks; the album covers are books propped slightly open as if on a window display.
And this is a good place to start understanding Jones’ work. Tabula rasa, blank slate, she tells us. Let’s reconsider the twentieth-century history of art and music that has thus far been credited to a lot of white guys. It’s only fitting that she uses 1960s Minimalism as her starting point: as both the apex and the end of modernism, she sees the moment when the 20th-century visual arts world was radically altered as the perfect opportunity to rewrite history.
Serving as the background for Song Containers, the Shhh works are made of professional noise-cancelling cables, sound production accessories that are customarily camouflaged with gaffer’s tape but are now placed prominently on view. In each work, a cable is plugged into drywall at two points that lie on an imaginary vertical line, and between lies a jumble of cord. The white wall serves as a piece of paper and the black cable as drawn lines, resulting at times in elegant, lyrical loops and at other times creating tangled scribbles bundled haphazardly with pieces of felt.
Noise-cancelling cables reappear in All Blues (For Fred), a site-specific work in the main Studio Museum gallery. Starting from a low pedestal on the floor and extending up to the vaulted ceiling, two aqua cables have been plugged together and then stretched taut like a yarn sculpture by Fred Sandback, after whom the sculpture is named.
If a Sandback work uses only line to make us aware of the three-dimensional space in which it exists, then Jones’ objects employs the silent tools of music production to make us aware of the sound in the world around us. What started as a tribute to Fred Sandback turns into a nod at composer John Cage’s 4’33”, in which a performer is instructed to not play his or her instrument for the duration of—you guessed it—four minutes and 33 seconds.
Jones’ allusions to Sandback and Cage—some 40 to 50 years after their heyday—both celebrate and playfully challenge Minimalism’s core aim: to strip objects to their most essential form and concept. She whittles her objects to bare structures and subsequently adds a layer of African-American cultural developments. The title All Blues may describe the cable’s color, but it also implies the black music tradition with a complex history stemming, from antebellum spirituals, work songs, and field hollers, that evolved into the most pervasive music genres today, such as jazz to rock and roll. In the same vein, Shhh is borrowed from the title of a song on Miles Davis’ first electronic album. Simultaneously expressing admiration and wariness, Jones takes Minimalism—a movement dominated by white men—and inserts her identity, as a black woman artist, into its lauded place in the art historical canon.
It’s also impossible not to make a connection to post-Minimalist artist Eva Hesse. The graphic lines and shadows of Shhh #6 are reminiscent of the drooping rope-and-latex arcs in No title. The three-dimensional cable, affixed to the wall but jutting out into space, reminds me of Hesse’s seminal Hang Up, which hovers between painting (an empty painted frame hung on a wall) and sculpture (steel tubes jutting out from two points on the frame). In fact, Jones—who also produces sound, text, prints, and paintings—calls these works “objects” because of their refusal to conform to one medium or the other. Perhaps Jones even identifies, at least in part, with Hesse, a woman whose work was both an extension of and a reaction against Minimalism.
And as Jones directs our attention to alternative histories of visual art and music, she also implores us to look and listen to what’s around us. On the micro-level, she points us to the other works in the larger, patchwork exhibition Shift, which includes a selection of the Bearden Project, a consideration of Romare Bearden’s legacy in the work of contemporary black artists. On the macro-level, we see the neighborhood around us: the site of the Harlem Renaissance, the home of W.E.B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey, and the heart of civil rights movement in New York City.
With one little Shhh, Jones demands that we consider all of it: the objects, the institution, the neighborhood, the forgotten and not-so-forgotten histories. Yes, she asks a lot of us, and I can only hope that the art world will take a few moments to look and listen.