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Artist connects Modernist Abstraction and African American Avant-Garde music in exhibition
Jennie C. Jones, Bold, Double, Barline (variation #1), 2013. Photo: Cathy Carver.

WASHINGTON, DC.- Jennie C. Jones (American, b. Cincinnati, Ohio, 1968; lives and works in Brooklyn, New York) explores the confluences between abstract visual art and African American avant-garde music in an exhibition of new work at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. On view from May 16 through Oct. 27, the site-specific installation melds paintings and sculptures with a sound piece that manipulates elements of works by experimental composers and performers. The combination testifies to Jones’ conception of abstraction as a language that can encompass cultural, political and historical ideas and can work toward spanning the critical gulf between African American and dominant modernisms.

The artist’s first solo museum exhibition, “Directions: Jennie C. Jones: Higher Resonance” is installed on the Hirshhorn’s third level, directly between single-artist galleries devoted to the abstraction of Ellsworth Kelly and Clyfford Still. Jones’ work opens up a conceptual dialogue with the modernist history embodied by these painters and extends it to encompass the music of figures such as Alvin Singleton, Wendell Logan, Olly Wilson, Alice Coltrane, Rahsaan Roland Kirk and the Art Ensemble of Chicago, whose source material she digitally “re-composes” for “Higher Resonance” (2013), the sound work that gives the exhibition its title. With looping, tempo changes and repetition, as well as the addition of silent expanses, Jones reinterprets music she has played in her studio as she works.

Jones reconfigures the contours of the gallery itself with a curved wall that visually suggests a phrase mark connecting a sequence of notes in a musical score and architecturally echoes the curved walls of the museum. The artist’s “acoustic intervention” defines a listening area for “Higher Resonance,” encouraging visitors to move around the room and examine the resulting shifts in their perception of sound.

Jones’ Acoustic Paintings and Bass Trap Sculptures further shape the sound in the gallery. As she recently told the National Endowment for the Arts’ Art Works podcast, “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.”

Making use of acoustic absorber panels originally designed to reduce sound reflections in recording studios, Jones’ Acoustic Paintings, such as “Soft Gray Tone with Reverberation #1–4” (2013), are visually grounded in the aesthetics of minimalism and color field painting. Strips and patches of bright yellow acrylic strike bold accents, evoking the painted “zips” of Barnett Newman and, by reflecting halos of color onto the surrounding walls, suggesting both the physicality and transcendence of sound.

For “Bass Traps with False Tones” (2013), Jones alters a pair of prefabricated plywood and fabric acoustic bass absorbers, recording-studio fixtures that damp low-frequency sound. Painting selected planes of the plywood with vivid yellow or resonant navy blue, she emphasizes the objects’ strikingly sculptural forms and imbues them with a coloristic presence the unaltered originals lacked. Although both the Bass Traps and the Acoustic Paintings are acoustically active, Jones considers them discrete objects that can also function independently of a sound work.

Completing the installation is a series of understated screenprints published at the Lower East Side Print Shop in New York City. Made from scanned and recomposed images of roundwound, double ball bass strings and printed with transparent silver inks, “Static Reverberation/String Arrangements #1–3” (2012) visualizes the physical vibration that is the fundamental source of all sound.

Throughout the exhibition, Jones advances an interest in exactly which modernist histories are seen and heard—and thus made available for future artists to build on—and which are excluded from the dominant narrative. By emphasizing the diversity of her sources, based in art worlds that have traditionally been seen as distinct entities, and by recombining them to suit her own purposes, she claims for herself a territory not circumscribed by medium, race or social milieu, while maintaining an awareness of the way such categories have been employed divisively in the past.

In January 2013, Jones was awarded the Joyce Alexander Wein Artist Prize, presented annually by the Studio Museum in Harlem. Established by jazz impresario George Wein to honor the memory of his wife, the prize, which carries a $50,000 award, recognizes an “African American artist who demonstrates great innovation, promise and creativity.”

“Directions: Jennie C. Jones: Higher Resonance” is organized by associate curator Evelyn Hankins.

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