Michelle Grabner on Jennie C. Jones

“Jennie C. Jones: Dynamics,” an exhibition of new work by the contemporary American artist, was a Minimalist offering conceived to buttress “Vasily Kandinsky: Around the Circle,” a concurrent show on view until September 5, 2022, featuring works culled from the Guggenheim Foundation’s own holdings. (Another presentation by Etel Adnan, which closed this past January, and an upcoming one by Cecilia Vicuña are part of the museum’s program of satellite shows organized around the Kandinsky exhibition).

In contrast to the exuberant visual vocabularies that permeate the Russian artist’s pictures, Jones’s hard-edge and material-rich geometric compositions punctuated the museum’s first two lower-ramp galleries. Topping off the proud parade of iconic Kandinskys lining the Guggenheim’s middle core was Jones’s immersive sound installation on the uppermost level. As a programming conceit, the pairing of Jones’s art with the modernist icon’s is a now-common legacy-institution strategy that’s being practiced by many museums in order to diversify their vast twentieth-century European cultural investments. Jones’s show provided an opportunity for a Black American Conceptual artist—who, like Kandinsky, has a deep interest in the sonic and formal relationships abstract art has to music—to seize the Guggenheim’s concave walls and provide a kind of dialectical counterpoint for a historically entrenched avant-gardist.

The institutional proximity of these two exhibitions, however, did reinforce an organizational concept that structures much of Jones’s work. Her paintings’ central compositions, which often seem rigorously austere, operate contra the scrupulous attention she gives to the works’ outermost areas and sides. The artist’s approach metaphorically underscores the essential political and aesthetic work, often done by women and members of marginalized communities, that happens at a culture’s periphery. But the decision to make Jones—and the other women artists involved in this program—side dishes to the main course felt more than a little shortchanging. For instance, in turning Jones’s sound installation Oculus Tone, 2021, into a kind of ambient-noise rest area on the museum’s top floor—complete with white modular seating units and containers bursting with a variety of houseplants—the show’s organizer, Lauren Hinkson, undermined the artist’s work and her overall vision. Certainly we can all use a moment to unwind after taking in a hefty chunk of Kandinsky’s wild and often ersatz formalism, but the curatorial decision to make Oculus Tone into a glorified break room was a poor one.

Fortunately, Jones’s work has the power to cast off the dour gloom of bad curation, as we saw in the selection of the artist’s acoustic panel paintings, which were installed at the landing of the museum’s entrance ramp. Take Soft, Pitchless Measure Oxide Edge, 2021, a nearly square composition with a topography sparsely textured by viscous white acrylic that has been carefully pushed and pulled over a flat-white surface, embodying a subtle painterly manipulation of medium that challenges Minimalism’s industrialized homogenous planes. Yet the real drama takes place not in the work’s central composition but at the outer contours. A bloodred vertical band delineates the right edge, while a thin strip of felt in light gray subtly articulates the left. The work’s sides are also detailed with narrow bars evoking musical staffs and ledger lines—moments of quiet cerebral song.

Inserted among Jones’s recent works was “Grey Score (for Agnes),” 2012, a series of three paper diptychs that honor the centennial of Agnes Martin’s birth. Each piece includes collaged bits of printed line paper—a Jonesian twist on Martin’s grids—that together function as a kind of lyrical homage. In the left panel of another paper diptych, Graphite Movement #3 (Guggenheim), 2021, we saw four groups of precisely curving parallel lines, which characterize the rotational energies of Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconic architecture. In contrast, the right-side drawing layers thicker, more slapdash lines that obscure a single delicate musical staff. As in all the paintings here, the artist expands upon the vocabulary of Minimalist abstraction with deftness and cunning.

In an interview from 2015, Jones stated, “My approach is revisionist and neomodernist in the sense of using the filter of postmodernism in order to unearth and reposition.” Her exhibition reminded us that there is great power in appropriating histories, rerouting cultural heritages, and imbuing reductive visual systems with new sets of consequences and interpretations. In this light, the interest in music that she shares with Kandinsky is mostly incidental.

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