Brooklyn-based artist Jennie C. Jones mashes up birdcalls and sounds of Nina with paper-scissors but no rock
Story by Roger Joseph / Photography by Seth Smoot
When christened after a certain identifiable icon, in this case The High Priestess Of Soul, it is assumed you share some of the signature attributes of your namesake. Though the ASPCA rescue that Jennie Jones scooped up earlier this year shows little of Ms. Simone’s commanding presence, this Nina makes it quite clear, using her own impassioned vocals, when — and if — she’s feeling good. “She’s had a stressful day,” Jones offers by way of explanation. “The vet gave her a shot and she cried like crazy. But later she had her hair combed.” Upon hearing this, Nina whisked herself over and sat on the couch, as if expecting to be stroked. Just like a woman, indeed.
Bestowing a tag this fraught with subtext upon a dog may seem unbalanced, but Nina, soon comfortable with a new person in her environment, is poised and playful, qualities found in the art Jones practices. “As one of the few women working within theses contexts, Jennie’s focus on jazz is quite informative as it re-evaluates the music’s influence on arts around the world,” says Valerie Cassel, associate curator at the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston. Known for her works with sound, it is fitting that the favorable noise being generated around Jones’ work has seen its volume rise.
After several residencies, starting with one at Maine’s Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture (Alex Katz is one of the more famed “students”), Jones has been the recipient of a slew of time-marking awards. Those including the Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grant, named after the married Titans of Abstract Expressionism, established “to assist individual working artists of merit with financial need”. In 2008, she nabbed the William H. Johnson Prize, founded to honor the inspired and tragic trajectory of the talented 20th century African-American painter. In doing so, Jones joins an impressive list of contemporary American artists including Laylah Ali, Kori Newkirk, and Nadine Robinson. Come October, Jones may have another reason to celebrate when the biennial awards of the Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation are announced.
With a raucous laugh, Jones says, “I’m from Ohio and I make collages,” and this is true — on the face of it. But her brand of collages is hardly the stuff of rainy day rec-room activity. From clauses of familiar music, manipulated until they demand a new response, to kinetic calligraphic drawings made from analog recording tape, Jones’ work reviews and comments on the development of American modernism with intelligence and economy, through the annals of mid-century art and music, specifically Jazz.
In “Red, Bird, Blue,” her most recent solo exhibition at Atlanta’s Contemporary Art Center, Jones fused Ellsworth Kelly with Charlie Parker, or moreover, referenced openly these seminal figures to riff on “history and the legacies of artists,” says Stuart Horodner, artistic director at Atlanta Contemporary Art Center. Horodner continues that Jones is part of a loosely-knit group, finding new ways of opening up connections to audiences, between disciplines, and establishes new academies of thought. Jones adds, “Bird sculpted Modernism. No, it’s not in the Guggenheim or MoMA. But we need to put these guys [musicians] in another context, as they sculpted this ideology.”
Jones did not study music, but it’s obviously one of her passions. In a voice that channels sympathy for her elders, Jones bemoans, “I quit the piano. It was horrible, as I did not want to learn how to read sheet music.” Despite the fact that she could ask her teacher to play an assignment, and then respond to it almost verbatim is impressive, it could not have endeared her to this particular faculty member. Equally impressive is her skill at mimicry; her Italian accent would spur jealousy in Kevin Kline’s Otto West.
It was almost 10 years ago since “Freestyle,” Thelma Golden’s hip, exuberant investment into the emerging careers of 28 postmodernists at Harlem’s Studio Museum, which Jones was a part. In the time that has elapsed, there are fewer questions, which once inferred that a female artist of color “needs permission” to work as a minimalist, outside of more approachable forms of art. Jones’ investigations into avant-garde jazz and mid-century music compositions with its core experimentalism prove that there is historical and cultural antecedent. Says Jones, “We can talk about pitch, color theory, and all that academic stuff but my pleasure is in the ridiculousness of a big and single incline on a big, empty gorgeous surface.” Increasingly, that pleasure is ours, too.