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.
The word posh: class, accents, and the Spice Girls
I wanted to tackle the subject of one little word, but such an endeavor has become inordinately thorny. (This has happened to me before.) While I am wholly unqualified to make any of the following claims due to my lack of knowledge of complex things like the British class system, I hope you find this entry at least somewhat thought-provoking.
After having inexplicably run across the word posh in my recent literary exploits, I realized that the way the British use posh is something I do not entirely understand. It is a word I recognize, of course, but I would never produce it in my own speech, at least not in the same way that these various speakers use it.
Let’s take a look at where I’ve seen the word posh lately.
The Autograph Man by Zadie Smith
“But on three occasions last year, instead of going to see Dr. Huang, he has gone and had poshsex with Boot on her posh (very long) lunch break. Oh, Boot was posh (and lovely).” page 131
“He couldn’t help it. He had his little goyish fetishes, one of which was awe for anyone so posh she couldn’t be bothered to be embarrassed. Or spell properly.” page 132
“A tall girl, well-bred like a posh horse.” page 154
British Vogue, December 2010, feature story on Emma Watson (of Harry Potterfame)
Describes Emma Watson as speaking “…in a clipped voice that’s unpolluted by the mockney adopted by many middle-class teenagers. (Grint and Radcliffe constantly teased her on set for being too posh, she says.)”
(All bolded words are my emphasis)
Okay, so what’s the issue? I understand posh enough to get to gist of these various excerpts, or at least continue to read the rest of the text with out problem. Yet my idea of what posh means is still hazy; I have not fully understood what this Boot character is like, or what exactly the Watson’s cast mates are mocking.
Can posh describe someone’s personality, mannerisms, dress, looks, and/or speech? How does a posh person look or dress? Is it equivalent to our New England preppy? (I am doubtful.) How does one have posh sex, as opposed to other types of sex? Is a posh lunchbreak just a long one, as Smith suggests, or is it something much more luxurious? (I’m guessing a posh luncher would opt for the double Shackburger over my single.)
In trying to understand the definition of posh, I refer to the primary context where I have witnessed the word before: the Spice Girls, of course.
Green circles indicate Victoria Beckham, née Adams, a.k.a. Posh Spice
(A Google image search of the Spice Girls quickly reveals that being posh means that you are not allowed to smile.)
Readers, here is what I propose: Posh is a decidedly British word generally reserved for colloquial speech, and I cannot fully grasp the nuances of the word because it refers to a set of people within a culture to which I do not belong. I can only try to approximate posh’s meaning. I would need to integrate myself into a native posh-using community to try to understand it.
Modern society does indeed have various ways for language outsiders to try to understand a novel word. I first consulted the ever-reliable Urban Dictionary.
We learn that posh is tied to social class, specifically the aristocracy. This upper class is determined in part on an individual’s financial worth (hence the word originating from the Romany slang for pennies).
You smartypants may have already known that posh has to do with the upper echelons of society; I had a feeling about that too. And okay, so we have social classes in the US too. Nevertheless, the class system in the UK somehow seems more pervasive. After all, they still have the peerage, a birth-led system that assigns titles to represent the ranks of British nobility. It was only in the late 1990s that Parliament removed hereditary peerage as a requirement for the House of Lords. We have no such thing in good ole U. S. of A. Instead, the myth of the American Dream suggests that upward social mobility is possible with a little bit of hard work. The history of social class in the two countries contributes to the their respective cultures. And out of the British culture came the wordposh.
In fact, I found some supporting evidence in The Autograph Man:
“What do you mean, class thing? We’re not posh.” page 46
Protagonist Alex-Li Tandem utters this retort in a conversation with his friend Adam regarding their relationship with the local milk operative, Marvin. I consider this a moment of realization of the ever-present social structure. Alex doesn’t consider himself posh, but compared to the working-class Marvin, he is. We can represent the class hierarchy among the novel’s characters as a series of inequalities: Marvin < Alex and Adam < Boot.
Similarly, Posh Spice came from an upper middle class family, wore sleek designer mini dresses and shiny stilettos, and ultimately married fame footballer David Beckham. Compared to her midriff-baring bandmates, she was indubitably the most posh.
A few more thoughts: Accents are an essential indicators of class (and therefore poshness) in the UK. The Watson quote is the perfect example. I imagine her “clipped” and “unpolluted” speech is Received Pronunciation, the standard accent of England. Unlike most other dialects, it is not tied to one particular region of the British Isles. It is, however, a marker of the educated classes.
The US equivalent to RP would be Standard American English. While similarly region-less like RP, people always talk about how SAE is a general Midwestern accent. You know, how newscasters talk like good ol’ Americans reporting live from Main Street.
The Watson quote, among other things I have heard, reveals the following: using RP in the UK comes off as snooty, whereas in America, SAE is more or less normalized. Caring about accents to such an extent seems so incredibly British. Consider George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion: it’s all about how language reflects and creates one’s class and therefore one’s identity. By the end of the play, Eliza Doolittle manages to shed her Cockney squawking, at the same time losing ties to her community.
Do we have a comparable example of American literature that illustrates such a linguistic divide so clearly? The US, indeed, has a ton of language ideology issues to deal with too; just think about how the media satirizes Southern accents, for example. Yet the British seem so much more preoccupied with the accent/class dichotomy.
To summarize (rather abruptly, because this entry hit a word count of 1000 several paragraphs ago): A little word like posh reflects its country’s history and social structure. I am also interested in the idea that a speaker is not able to fully understand a word and its nuanced usage if he or she is not a part of particular community.
 Whether or not mobility occurs morein practice in the US versus the UK is another question.