Posts tagged "Studio Museum in Harlem"

jennie c. jones’ objects at the studio museum: look. and listen.

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.

Objects is on view at the Studio Museum in Harlem through May 27, 2012. Photos via Studio Museum and artist’s website.

décollage: Mark Bradford and Jens Lorenzen


It was one of those Thursday afternoons, the type that finds you in a cheap-wine-induced state, stumbling around a west Chelsea loft building full of galleries and start-ups. I saw lots of people holding Solo cups near Debuck Gallery's doorway, so I naturally had to see what the commotion was all about. Once inside, an Orangina bottle, iPod-clad dancing silhouettes, and the Pope stared back at me. German artist Jens Lorenzen's mural-sized canvases appeared to be décollaged advertisements, each layer torn away to reveal the next all-too-recognizable image, but upon closer examination I discovered that the only material atop the surface was oil paint. 

Compare with Mark Bradford, the Bucksbaum Award-winning mixed media artist whose Alphabet was recently on view at the Studio Museum in Harlem. To make this recent major series, Bradford scavenged for poster advertisements in his South Los Angeles neighborhood. After layering the posters and letter stencils, Bradford sanded down the surface to create the weathered traces of the alphabet. 

Both artists evoke a sense of collage and décollage, but while Lorenzen builds up his pop-icon embedded surfaces, Bradford wears his down so that the original advertisements are completely abstracted.


Jens Lorenzen, Wall I, Element Plus 4 (Converse), 2009 (source)

Mark Bradford, Untitled (B), 2010 (source)

three occasions in portraiture: part III

Third and final post in a three-part series on portraiture and empowerment.

A tall, dark man dressed simply but sharply in a pair of jeans and a sweater, one hand resting against a support, the other beckoning forward, seems to step gingerly out of the canvas. This was Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s Highriser, a 2009 oil on canvas painting that, like its name suggests, towered above my head. Standing in the middle of the Studio Museum in Harlem’s main gallery, an overwhelming sense of déjà vu came over me. Actually, let me amend that statement: two different memories flooded my senses.

Highriser yiadom-boakye 
Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Highriser, 2009. Oil on canvas

Two and a half years earlier I had stood in the same spot, similarly staring up at oversized oil paintings of strong black individuals. That time I was taking in the heroic, stylized portraits ofKehinde Wiley’s 2008 exhibition The World Stage: Africa, Lagos ~ Dakar. While Yiadon-Boakye and Wiley relate in scale and and subject matter, their painting styles were very different. Wiley’s subjects are hyperrealistically painted in a bold and brilliant palette, embellishing the canvas with baroque (and at times gaudy) flourishes. Today, Yiadom-Boakye’s portraits use a much more subdued and dark palette, employing thicker brushstrokes to create a blurrier likeness of the individuals. 

Ll cool j kehinde
Kehinde Wiley, LL Cool J, 2005. Oil on canvas

The two artists also differ in who they choose to represent. Wiley is known for representing young, urban men he sees on the streets of Harlem and LA. He has also been known to portray contemporary West African men and hip hop royalty like LL Cool J. Contrastingly, Yiadom-Koakye’s portraits do not reference real, living individuals. Instead, she fabricates character types, giving hints to their back stories but allowing the viewers to determine their fictional narratives.

What I find most fascinating about Wiley and Yiadom-Boakye’s practices is that they both draw from the tradition of portraiture. Wiley asks his street clothes-clad subjects to assume the poses of Renaissance masterpieces, and subsequently fills the backgrounds with French Rococo fleurs-de-lis. Yiadom-Boakye was influenced by 17th through 18th century French, Spanish, and American painters. This is when my second déjà vu moment comes in. Staring at loose brushwork and black outlines around the figures, I could have sworn that Édouard Manet had been reincarnated in the body of the Ghanaian British artist. 

This bring us back to Part I of this essay series, back to Velázquez and Las meninas. French impressionist Manet emulated Velázquez’s painting style, but I like to think that Manet also admired the Spanish baroque artist for daring to elevate commoners, like nannies and dwarves, to the status of kings. Wiley and Yiadom-Boakye build on the same tradition of portraiture as Velázquez and Manet, now representing everyday black individuals, whether real or imagined. From Las meninas to Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, the tradition of portraiture is expanding, and I rather like where its going.

(Post script: I was in El Museo del Barrio’s giftshop when I sighted copies of the Hide/Seek catalog on display. I love that the community-based museum is supporting other underrepresented communities in any way they can.)

Irrational thoughts should be followed absolutely and logically.