The other day when I was looking through Jennie C. Jones’ paintings I came across a photo that seemed out of place in relation to her current body of work; what I didn’t realize was that the picture was an important point of departure for the creation of her subsequent work. Homage to an Unknown Suburban Black Girl circa 1969 features a young black woman with a perfectly picked afro in a white sheath dress; she’s sitting in front of mid-century modern blinds that look like woven tapestries by Anni Albers. When this piece was shown at the Studio Museum of Harlem’s seminal show, “Freestyle” in 2001, it prompted art critic Holland Cotter to postulate “what her life and modernist utopias have to do with each other”(Holland Cotter, NYT May, 2001). As Jones later recounted in an artist statement from 2002, answering that important question sat at the core of an artistic practice that revolves around the improvisational nature of jazz and its connection to modernist aesthetics. Jones has been able to make historical connections between modernism and jazz that have roots in artistic and cultural practices that have been manipulated as a means of survival and adaptation.
What I find interesting about Cotter’s question is that it also plays on our natural pre-disposition to immediately see differences instead of similarities, and in a sense this default needs to be examined. This is what made Sanford Biggers 2001 piece, A Small World such an interesting one as compared to Jones’ photograph because it serves as both a counterpoint and cultural connector to Homage.
A Small World is a video installation that Biggers produced with Jennifer Zackin that was also featured in Freestyle. A dual screen video shows vintage Super 8 footage of Biggers’ family at birthday parties and holidays juxtaposed with a virtual mirror image of Zackin’s family enjoying similar activities. On the surface the families and circumstances couldn’t be anymore different: one Black, the other Jewish, one on the east coast the other on the west coast, etc. As middle class families you realize that they are really no different from one another, this makes you question why the barriers of bias so frequently supersede our shared experiences.
Holland Cotter, May 2001: ART REVIEW; A Full Studio Museum Show Starts With 28 Young Artists and a Shoehorn