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You Make Me Feel like 100 Billie Holiday Songs:
A Conversation with Jennie C. Jones

In her Minimalist drawings, Jennie C. Jones tests the boundaries between music, theory, history, and art as she investigates to what extent African American culture has left its mark on ideas of modernity. Works of hers were recently on show in the exhibition at the Lobby Gallery of Deutsche Bank in New York and were purchased for the bank's collection. Oliver Koerner von Gustorf visited the artist in her Brooklyn studio.

Jennie C. Jones, Photo: Jennie C. Jones

Transposed Blue/Cool – for Miles and Juliette; Record and Listen in Yellow and Brown; You Make Me Feel like 100 Billie Holiday Songs – these are the titles of Jennie C. Jones' drawings and sound installations. When the 38 year-old calls herself an "audiophile with a somewhat eccentric taste," she is referring to her love of jazz . She draws the music, collages it, and transforms it into architecture; she elevates listening to music to the level of conceptual practice, transforming stereo sets and record players into sculptures.

Composition for Playback in Brown & Magenta No 2, 2006, Collection of the artist

At first glance, her small-scale pictures resemble abstract compositions recalling Russian Constructivism and Bauhaus – Kasimir Malevich or Josef Albers . But then the lines that grow out of the squares and rectangles or intertwine with one another turn out to be microscopically fine cables and microphones – while the whole thing joins together to form an abstract sound system. Her work Homage to an Unknown Suburban Black Girl was one of the stealth highlights of Freestyle at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 2001, as Holland Cotter, New York Times critic, wrote in his review of Jones' first solo show Simply Because You’re Near Me at New York’s Artists Space in 2006. Now, however, her works have become even subtler. Jones' current images are electrifying, full of complex rhythms and counter-rhythms – just like the songs of Miles Davis , which play in the studio throughout our conversation.

Installation at Artists Space, New York 2006,
Courtesy Jennie C. Jones

Oliver Koerner von Gustorf: What were your first encounters with jazz?

Jennie C. Jones: It was through my mother, her taste in music. It was something that was always playing in our house, but of course I didn't pay too much attention to the great records we had until I was older. You never want to listen to your parents' records until you grow up and you realize they had really great shit, things that gave rise to other forms of music, including what you were into at the time.

How did you find your way back to jazz, then?

It was always around. Maybe it was through approaching it academically, and then acknowledging that it was what I listened to while working. It was a kind of soundtrack for my studio practice – becoming the work itself.

When did you start to work artistically with jazz?

About five years ago. It was really an epiphany, a moment while I was listening to The Modern Jazz Quartet that I decided I wanted to go back to paper, to start from scratch, to start with mark making again, because I felt at times that all my schooling was like treading water through academia. Sometimes, the more you read, the less work you make.

Was your early conceptual work already connected to music?

I wanted to go back to the beginnings of black cultures' impact on music history, and then the parallels just instantly started falling into place. There are endless historical junctures where music and art were talking about the same thing, but they were kept completely separate from one another in discourse. One fell into the genre of black history, the other into art history. For me, I kept seeing these amazing parallels in ideologies for both disciplines, especially in jazz and abstraction. Conceptualism allows these different media to occupy the same space.

Please tell me more about the parallels in black music and modernist art…

What got me interested was bebop, which most historians refer to simply as "modern music." It struck a deep chord in me – I finally felt that I was given permission to be abstract, but also to maintain my practice in the framework of, dare I say "identity politics." It said, "look, there is a precedent here…," a brilliant one actually, on many levels. There is a complete, total, insane abstraction happening in black cultural production, but it just wasn’t in the museums.

How do you start to draw?

First I go on a color hunt… I sit down with a lot of fancy magazines because the quality of the paper is so much better. Artforum is great to cut up. To look at that only for the colors! I just go through the pages and I pull color. The series come usually from having a certain amount of a particular color – a limited palette. I usually look for red, that vivid maraschino cherry red that screams "modern red." I would say if I had to describe my own palette at the moment, it would be something like red, black, a deep chocolate brown, a Tiffany blue. From there I just start composing on the page and thinking about where the line is going to fall, about the weight of the line and the feeling of suspension.

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