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Sound Paintings Tell Stories of the Black Avant-Garde

Jennie C. Jones showcases the vibrant sounds of jazz with the language of minimalism.

Jennie C. Jones's mid-career museum survey, Compilation, shows the ways in which black history and art history collide. But there are no figures present in this history lesson; instead the exhibition, currently on view at Contemporary Art Museum of Houston, relies on sound to construct the narrative. The works of sculpture, painting, audio collage, sound installation, and drawings of monochromatic shapes and lines abstractly and sonically chart, through a contemplative consideration of the 1950s and 1960s free jazz movement, a politics of freedom. The works collectively seek to embody the experimental spirit of the mid-century black avant-garde movement and contemporary minimalism.


Jones’s use of abstraction frees up her gesture to be many things at once. “For Jennie there is an aspect of her work about resistance but there is also an aspect of her work that is all about representing, and all about recovery,” explains show curator Valerie Cassel Oliver. “The work points to an ideology that drives it all, an ideology that recovers the histories of the black avant-gardist,” says Oliver. In the sound collage, A Score in 8 Measures (for Melba Liston), Jones brings back to the public consciousness the cultural labor of Liston, who in the 1940s broke barriers as the first woman trombonist and composer to perform as a member of the era’s big bands.

The exhibition also includes Jones’s homage Blues in C Sharp Minor (for Teddy Wilson). The sharp boxes of blue of the painting intersect across canvas and sound-absorbing panels. It is one of Jones’s Acoustic Paintings. The suite of Acoustic Paintings in the show are soundless, but they are meant to remember a time of contested freedom. In citing musicians by name in the titling of her work, Jones is seeking to recover, for instance, the bravado of Louis Armstrong’s trumpet, the ways in which John Coltrane huffed into his saxophone, and how Teddy Wilson’s fingers slid across the piano when he played Rosette.

In Compilation, Jones mines the vibrant sounds of jazz in the language of minimalism. The existential abstraction of Barnett Newman found in his 1966 painting, Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow, and Blue? is in conversation with Blues for C Minor Sharp (For Teddy Wilson). In the context of the 1950s and 1960s Jones’s exploration of black on the canvas sits in conversation with artist Robert Rauschenberg’s untitled black paintings created in the early 1950s. The thin lines and heavier brushes of blackness found in Score for Sustained Blackness operates like Rauschenberg’s black paintings as a site for a more introspective viewing of blackness. “In one way it’s about sustaining a tone but it is also about sustaining an identity,” explains Oliver of Jones’s exploration of blackness as a material hue of freedom. The show also features Duchamp’s Inner Ear, a sculptural work that recalls conceptual artist Marcel Duchamp.


“When you are able to work with a living artist it is about collaborating with them to give them a platform for their voices to be heard,” Oliver tells the Creators Project.  “What is so compelling about Jennie and her work is the consistent articulation of knitting these two worlds of music and art together. She is celebrating those narratives and pushing them by inserting herself into them,” notes Oliver. “All I wanted to do was create a platform for her to speak.”

Compilation is on view through March 27 at Contemporary Art Museum of Houston. For more information, click here.


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