Photo by David A. Brown
The winner of the 2012 Joyce Wein Artist Prize discusses the relationship in her work between visual art and sonic art. [26:26]
Jennie C. Jones—Podcast Transcript
That was Auto Reverse Suite # 1 an audio collage made by the artist, Jennie C. Jones
Welcome to ArtWorks, the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation’s great artists to explore how art works, I’m your host, Josephine Reed.
Jennie C. Jones casts her artistic net into wide and brilliant waters. Working from a minimalist aesthetic, she creates visual and sound abstractions that explores the intersection of art history, music history, and African-American history. She's interested in the connections between art and music specifically the simultaneous innovations in the 1950s and 60s of minimalist art and avant-garde jazz. Her visual and sound work often embrace both. For example, the sound piece we heard at the show's beginning -- Auto Reverse Suite # 1 -- was created by using the auto-reverse button on a Sony Walkman with the Elvin Jones LP Poly-Currents as its source material. The result implicitly asks the listener to explore transitions and seamlessness. While in visual works like Acoustic paintings, she uses soundproofing material to create abstract, spare compositions that invite the viewer to think about both the material culture of music and how sound is contained. But Jones also has a strong pull towards history and her work often references the absence of African-American artists and experimental jazz musicians from the history of modernism.
Jennie C. Jones has exhibited her work nationally and internationally, in spaces like The Kitchen, the Aspen Art museum and the Studio Museum in Harlem. In May of this year, she'll have a solo exhibition at Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture garden here in Washington DC.
She's been awarded a Pollack Krasner Foundation Grant and a Creative Capital grant, and this month, the Studio Museum in Harlem has honored Jennie C. Jones with the 2012 Joyce Wein Artist prize. One of the most significant awards given to individual artists in the United States today, the prize was established by jazz impresario and NEA Jazz master George Wein to honor his late wife. I spoke with Jennie C. Jones soon after she received the award. I asked her if being honored with the Wein Prize had a special significance to her given so much of her work involves the visual and aural legacy of music of jazz.
Jennie C. Jones: Yes, absolutely. The legacy of George Wein and his contributions to not only live concerts but just the legacy that his wife had as well, at the Studio Museum in Harlem, is particularly special for someone who's interested in music history, and bridging those two worlds was particularly poignant because it has been a challenge to think about how sound functions in a visual context, like in the gallery white box setting.
Jo Reed: You began your career as a visual artist. Talk about, first of all, what drew you into art.
Jennie C. Jones: I am one of those who select the blessing and the curse kind of narrative. Ever since I was three feet tall, I said, "Oh, I want to grow up and be an artist." There was a small moment when I wanted to be a fashion designer, but I think every little girl wants to do that at some point, until she learns that you have to sew. <laughs> Then I wasn't interested. But I was always an artist. I was blessed to have very creative, very interesting parents that were completely supportive. There was always lots of art and music in the house, as well as a piano, that I quit. I just didn't practice and I always wanted to make drawings instead. And I ended up going to the Art Institute of Chicago right out of high school.
Jo Reed: And drawn to visual arts. Was there a pull towards music?
Jennie C. Jones: I told the story before, and it almost sounds cheesy to bring it up, but I did actually have an artist's epiphany moment, where I was grappling with content and coming out of a very heavy, politically-driven undergraduate and right through grad school, and I realized how much time I was spending in the studio more or less curating the music I was going to listen to while I was working. And the epiphany was that probably that was part of my practice. So I had to shift gears, and I started investigating more modes of conceptualism, and thinking about listening and archiving and things like this as a source for the visual work.
Jo Reed: So when you were doing visual work, you had a playlist?
Jennie C. Jones: Yeah. Basically yes. Except in my day, they were more like mix tapes. <laughs>
Jo Reed: And did the music have an impact on the work that you created?
Jennie C. Jones: I think it did. I think there's also moments when silence is important also, just in the process of making visual work and how we think about the connection between seeing. I'm starting to get a little bit more into building that connection, between optics and sound work. I'm not so skilled on the physics end of it all, but there's definitely a connection that could be delved into deeper in that regard.
Jo Reed: Was your work minimalist then? Because your visual work is-- well, actually, your sound work is minimalist too, I think.
Jennie C. Jones: I feel like I always had a leaning towards the abstract, towards hard-edge. I was doing a lot of collage and more abstract work than I felt comfortable with for the era I was in school. I was an undergrad and grad school during the peak of multicultural discourse, and this becomes a tension that I've played with and pushed against and embraced at different points in my career. Whether or not how overtly one gets into addressing the politics of being a woman of color, where that stays in the studio, where that is in your personal life, your personal politics versus your creative practice. But I think that the music as a source kind of fills that need for me to also stay somewhat grounded and having a cultural resonance.
Jo Reed: Would you say that there's a connection between your sound work and your visual work?
Jennie C. Jones: Yeah, definitely. And my upcoming show at the Hirshhorn that opens in May, it's starting to feel more and more like a graphic score, like the way that the pieces are starting to fall together. And the exhibition I had at The Kitchen here in New York about a year, year and a half ago, also had this feeling. The way that we installed the objects in the space has a structure about them that could be read as a graphic score in a way.
Jo Reed: A graphic score? As in scoring music?
Jennie C. Jones: Yes. Yes.
Jo Reed: That's such an interesting concept.
Jennie C. Jones: This is a concept that's been around for a while. There are lots of composers and-- I mean, you can look at John Cage, you can look at folks like Anthony Braxton. There's a lot of people that have more or less taken the structure of music notation and turned it into a visual language that allows for interpretation by the musician.
Jo Reed: But how often does a visual artist do that?
Jennie C. Jones: I'm not really sure. Sometimes--
Jo Reed: And that's what I'm talking about.
Jennie C. Jones: Yeah. Yeah, exactly.
Jo Reed: I know it in music. It's the translation into the visual that I'm completely taken with.
Jennie C. Jones: Well, if you really look at scores-- I had this conversation with a couple different friends who are musicians. At one point I was attempting to sort of educate myself, and I was thinking, "Oh, I should learn how to read music." But I was really more interested in the mark-making, and the visual language of a score. And there was something really satisfying about leaving that veil of not really knowing. It's like looking at characters, looking at language, but not understanding the language, but interpreting in that way. And that does lead towards thinking about how these things could be played or what they would sound like in relation to what they look like, those kind of patterns.
Jo Reed: Were you using electronic equipment: acoustic tiles, headphones, a little microphone-- were you using them in your visual work before you moved to the audio work?
Jennie C. Jones: No, it sort of came after. It for me was finally the linchpin that could bridge two-dimensional work with the investigation of sonic work and figuring out how sound functions in a physical space, leads to the fact that like the studio I'm sitting in now as well-- but there are acoustic absorbers and things in the corner to contain the sound, and that becomes a really wonderful metaphor to talk about how we hold things-- our experiences, our emotions, or-- what an absorber is could function in two days. I also consider them sort of active and passive. Like in one instance, perhaps a piece of mine could read or have a relationship to someone like Ellsworth Kelly's work, but at the same time it's functioning in the space; it's active; it's affecting the sound and the environment that it's placed in. So that was kind of-- I feel like it took 10 years to not just make collage or make drawings, ink drawings, of wire or speakers. I used to do a lot of that more literal type of work in regard to looking at sound and equipment-- to having formal work that actually functions in a space by affecting the sound in the room-- with or without me having a sound piece there. It's working.
Jo Reed: When did you transition into audio?
Jennie C. Jones: The first sound piece I made was around 2001, and it was "You Make Me Feel Like a Hundred Billie Holiday Songs," and it was an attempt to hear simultaneously a hundred Billie Holiday songs playing at once. And it stopped for me at around 27 tracks but because I wanted it to have some sense of integrity to it. I didn't want it to fall apart and become like white noise, which is what will start to happen when you have that much information playing at the same time. Yeah, so it's been about 10 years, but it feels like it's just the elephant in the room, and so much of my interest in modernism and neo-modernism lends itself towards looking at the missing puzzle pieces in that story and the story of American Modernism, and that lends itself then towards looking at the composers and the musicians and jazz musicians and artists of color that aren't necessarily plugged into the birth of modernism in America. It's more of an audible story than one that could be seen in the visual art canon
Jo Reed: That's, I would say, another overarching theme with your work, no? I mean, this-- you're having a conversation with modernism.
Jennie C. Jones: Yeah. Yeah. Well, the curator at the Hirshhorn, Evelyn Hankins, is actually the modernist curator. So she approached me, and we have had this wonderful dialog and this other conversation about these things. And another curator, Valerie Cassel Oliver, who is at CAM in Houston is working on an exhibition about Black Abstraction. And we keep learning and having these conversations about not only pedagogy but that push-pull that I'm thinking; I think it's an interesting moment that all these different methodologies are allowed to happen at the same time. We have people that are working very-- still working heavily with narrative or figurative work, and then now there's a moment, there's a breath, where more conceptual thinkers and abstract artists, who've always been around, but it's what pops in and out of being in vogue or being of the moment.
Jo Reed: In maybe a talk you gave or something you wrote how conceptualism can allow different mediums to occupy the same space. Do you think of yourself as a conceptual artist?
Jennie C. Jones: I do. I do. I really struggle with going back to painting after about 15 years. I started as a painter, and circling back, and I've already been very self-aware and noticed how I'm really treating these paintings like the objects that they are. I'm not looking at them and going into two-dimensional deep space so much as acknowledging that this is an object in a room. And I think that conceptualists tend to think that way, that there's a certain kind of logic to looking at a room as a canvas, or looking at a canvas as an object in that room. That's kind of a conceptual frame of mind. So yes, but it's hard to put on what badge you're going to put on today, which one are you going to put on before you go into the studio.
Jo Reed: We've mentioned jazz and how important it is in your work. What was your first introduction to jazz?
Jennie C. Jones: Oh, I would say like sort of my notions of thinking what was cool. I remember a funny moment when a friend of mine at school, when I was a kid, was having like a sock hop theme party, and I went home and I asked my mom about if she could make me a poodle skirt, and what she wore in the '50s. And she looked at me like I was nuts, and she said, "You know, I was wearing a pencil skirt, and I was sitting in the basement sneaking cigarettes and listening to the Modern Jazz Quartet." So early on, my notion of what was cool was sort of seen in more of a light of subculture and a beatnik that kind of thing. We had a lot of music in the house. Modern Jazz Quartet was one. My mom was a huge Miles Davis fan. But we had a lot of folk music, too. That was the era that I was raised in. So we had like Richie Havens, and particular favorite female singers like Nina Simone and Carmen McRae. So these were always around. You hate your parents' records until you get old enough to realize that they're actually pretty cool.
Jo Reed: Well, when did you approach jazz artistically, thematically?
Jennie C. Jones: Yeah, when I was starting to investigate the gaps in the modernist story and there's a wonderful picture that I've opened a couple of lectures, particularly when I go to colleges or work with students. There's a photograph of John Coltrane in the Guggenheim, and it looks like a straightforward portrait of him, and you can see he's sort of on the cantilevers or the ramps rather, and you look down and he's pointing rather assertively at his horn case. And this is-- this tension, this moment of he's pointing at his method inside of the modern art context; he's pointing to his instrument, his tool, for participating in that conversation. So that's really, I don't like using the word "permission." I'm working really hard to find another way to frame it. But maybe it's pedagogy. Maybe it's like "legacy" or something. But looking for ways so that I can claim an aesthetic that I feel natural working in, but I also wanted to sort of shed light on the lack of this type of work being promoted or shown in a historic context in museums, abstract work. And I think particularly if people like Elma Thomas, an artist that I feel are almost like unicorns, they're not part of the art history narrative so much as they should be.
Jo Reed: We don't think of art, visual art, and jazz in the same way. It's not part of the same discourse.
Jennie C. Jones: It's almost like oil and water. All of these things are happening at the same historic juncture; they're just not put into the same conversation. Music history, art history, black history. If you took a snapshot of the '60s and '70s, there's so much crossover because it is happening at the same historic moment. But they're put in different camps in terms of how we learn about them and how we talk about them. So that's one thing I think--I don't even know if we're still postmodern. We're post-postmodern, or-- <laughs> I'm not sure. But we're able to sort of blend these things together and talk about hybrids and talk about the relationship between John Cage and Miles Davis. Those things can bleed together into one discourse.
Jo Reed: You mentioned the absence of an acknowledgement of African-American contributions to modernism. Can you talk a little bit about how you're trying to challenge that?
Jennie C. Jones: I feel like I'm challenging it in the work itself. I really do. And I feel that listing my sources and being very transparent about what I'm listening to and who's influencing the sound pieces, even if the sampling is very periphery. I don't want to say it's like micro-sampling but it's not like DJ practice, where I'm pulling entire sweeping sections. But being in conversation with them, it influences the visual work, but unto itself it's almost like a reconstruction or recomposition of some of these composers and musicians that I admire.
Jo Reed: Describe "Slow Birds.” Explain to listeners how you created that sound piece.
Jennie C. Jones: It is, I believe, the first three or four notes of a Charlie Parker solo. And I work with freeware. I work with very low-tech software for sound editing. And I like doing that because it sets up parameters. I don't have a lot of bells and whistles. It's bare bones. And I'm very interested in altering time signatures of things and changing time, which also leans towards that conceptual methodology.
So those four Charlie Parker notes, the time signature is changed so that they're stretched over about a minute and a half. So it just becomes a changing tone. And the underpinning for that is kind of using a system of reduction, where I pulled out all the other parts of a song called "Little Max," which is Max Roach, Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus from an album called Money Jungle--very famous album for composers, jazz composers. And I plucked out everything except Max Roach's drum solo. So they end up stringing together into this long percussion that can be underneath the Charlie Parker tones. So things like that I think that there's a lot systems that artists use in a visual practice that translate very easily to looking at audio. It's almost another form of collage for me, and the visual interface of looking at a sound wave is very much like making collage on paper, which I did for many years.
Jo Reed: Yeah, I'm looking at the sound waves dancing across my computer even as we speak. Your work also seems to ask the audience to listen very closely to silence. And it brings mind an exhibit you had --- and honestly I can’t remember where --- but it contained an installation in which you had two iPods; one that was playing music while the other was silent.
Jennie C. Jones: Oh, the exhibition at Sikkema Jenkins Gallery, there were two speakers: the hard drives were iPods but they alternated back and forth to John Cage's famous 4'33". I think every sound artist has to get their John Cage 4'33" piece out of their system. It's just almost a cliché. Like, "Oh yeah, okay, I'll do my John Cage piece and then I can start thinking-- trying to figure out where do we go from that moment historically." So one piece was dead, quite speaker, for four minutes and thirty-three seconds, and then it would alternate back and forth from the other speaker, which was playing the opening of "In a Silent Way," by…
Jo Reed: Miles Davis.
Jennie C. Jones: Yeah. So it was also looking at the two very famous thinkers and how they approached the concept of silence.
Jo Reed: In that same show, as I recall, there were also CD racks in both rooms, many, and they were empty and clear, plastic boxes.
Jennie C. Jones: Mm-hmm. And it was funny, because I really thought that it was maybe too heavy-handed, but it was not perceived that way. The titles of those pieces were discographies by decades. So it would be like the top 20 jazz LPs from 1960 to 1969; the titles were poems and literary works unto themselves because it's almost making like a Dada language poem by having a string of titles from one particular moment in time. But they were embedded into the gallery wall. So the heavy-handed part for me which it didn't turn out to be so heavy-handed was that I was like literally hammering a lot of these African-American musicians and embedding them into the gallery wall, embedding them into that conversation. It was not necessarily interpreted that way I think because the materials of looking at CD cases and analog was so full of nostalgia, and was only a couple of years ago. I don't think I could get away with even thinking about making work that touches upon that physicality anymore. It's almost immediately gone to kitsch, to think about a record sleeve or to think about how we don't have these things in our homes anymore. We've gone down to just having a hard drive instead of a record collection. So that was part of that exhibition for me too, was acknowledging that shift from analog to digital.
Jo Reed: When did you find out about the Wein Award? How did you find out?
Jennie C. Jones: Well, the cat's out of the bag now, but I found out in October. And then Sandy happened, so they rescheduled the gala, and I had to sit on pins and needles and not tell anyone about it until the gala that just happened.
Jo Reed: It obviously is a great honor. But it also comes with some financial support.
Jennie C. Jones: Yes.
Jo Reed: And what does that mean to you?
Jennie C. Jones: It's tremendous, because like when we were talking about conceptualism I'm not the kind of artist that's making massive objects for sale, and that is more challenging. So much of the art world is completely commercial-- market-driven, rather. I don't want to say it's by the yard at moments, <laughs> but it certainly can feel that way. So it's a huge acknowledgement. A lot of my practice has been from writing grants and working for other artists and working at nonprofits in the art world. So it's just a tremendous honor and is a huge validation to keep going, and that tenacity has its rewards.
Jo Reed: You work at home.
Jennie C. Jones: I am in my first studio in five years, and it's changing things. It's definitely a healthy psychological bonus to leave your home and go someplace else to make your work.
Jo Reed: And as we mentioned earlier it is just in time for your show in Washington, D.C. at the Hirshhorn in May.
Jennie C. Jones: Yes. Yeah. Yeah.
Jo Reed: Can you tell us a little bit about what you're doing for that?
Jennie C. Jones: Sure. The exhibition is called Higher Resonance, and it's kind of a counterpoint to the exhibition I had at The Kitchen last year, which was focusing on low end, low tones and bass, and this is looking more at the ephemeral nature of sound and looking at upper register and high tone. So they'll be one sound piece, but it's in two separate locations in the gallery. And we're building a curved wall that will function as sort of an acoustic intervention in the gallery so that the sound that is in that little nook, if you will, will resonate in that way. And the visual work is acoustic panels and acrylic on canvas, as well as a suite of prints that were produced at the Lower East Side Printshop this last year. So I'm very excited about it. It's a huge honor. I still, when I think about the Hirshhorn, and their Directions gallery is sandwiched in between the Clyfford Still room and the Ellsworth Kelly room. It just feels daunting that I'm in that context.
Jo Reed: That was artist and winner of the 2012 Joyce Wein Artist prize, Jennie C. Jones.
You’ve been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts.
Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor.
We heard excerpts from the following sound installations created by Jennie C. Jones:
Audio Reverse Suite #1
Slowly, in a Silent Way, Caged
The music now playing is “Foreric: Piano Study” from the album Metascapes, composed and performed by Todd Barton, and used courtesy of Valley Productions.
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For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.