Skowhegan Interview Project
For the second edition of the Skowhegan Interview Project, Don Edler (‘12) spoke with Alumnus (‘96) and Resident Faculty (‘14) Jennie C. Jones just before she left for Maine in early June.
Don Edler: Thank you for taking the time to talk with me - It must be exciting to be going back to Skowhegan as resident faculty, how are you feeling as you prepare to leave for the summer?
Jennie C. Jones: I can’t wait to get out of here next week. I don’t think I’ve been up there since 2001.
DE: What were you doing up there that time?
JJ: Unfortunately, I was working at Creative Capital Foundation and they did their very first artist retreat at Skowhegan. I say “unfortunately” because I had only been in New York for five years and Skowhegan still felt like this fantasy experience— like a feather in my cap. At Creative Capital I was an arts administrator handing out memos to other artists who got huge grants and I’m there holding a clipboard and telling everyone where their room is.DE: I guess that must have been a bummer.
JJ: It was weird. Definitely weird.
DE: I might be going back this summer for the next edition of the Skowhegan Interview Project. I think that will be weird for me too, even though it’s only been two years.
JJ: There’s such a weight to the concept that “it’s a once in a lifetime experience.” You’re like “oh my god I can never go back unless I’m teaching or lecturing which means I have to get it together so that someday I can return.”
DE: I picked up a guy who at the time I didn’t know, Jean Jacques du Plessis, in Boston on my drive up. He was a participant also, and we spent the five-hour drive talking about all themyths that surrounded Skowhegan.
JJ: The mythology around Skowhegan; I’m curious.
DE: I guess the big thing is the idea that people go there and go nuts for nine weeks. That was the story I had always heard. Everyone told me they just drank a lot, and partied a lot and didn’t get any work done.
DE: Was that the same rumor or was it different in ‘96?
JJ: I think it was a little bit different. I have some mixed feelings about how Skowhegan lives in the world now, which is really just me being nostalgic. It used to feel like the Skull and Bones of the art world. I like that weirdness. It was somewhere in Maine. It was awesome if you could go, a privilege just to get in, and you didn’t have to pay for it if you had a matching institution. It also had such a heavy tie to legacy in a different way than MacDowell or Ox-Bow. It just felt more “New England”, which is why the Skull and Bones reference makes a little sense.
Though I did hear it was like sex camp. I didn’t hear much about partying, but maybe that was the assumption. I heard that crazy affairs happen with people sneaking out in the woods. If you have a partner before you go, they’re going to be worried about what’s going to happen when you’re out there. It was the most boring, non-sexy experience for me. I was so disappointed. Man, I didn’t even make out when I was there. That sucks.
DE: That sort of Skull and Bones mystique is really accurate.
I remember having this assumption that it was a ticket into the art world, in the same way they used to talk about Yale. Skowhegan was supposed to be even more so than that. I feel crazy ever believing that, but it still holds that mystique for people who have never been. Everyone has that story of someone who met the right person or did really well afterwards, but for most people it’s a great experience and it’s great for your practice but it’s not going to give you overnight success.
JJ: Right. Like you’re somehow going to share a ride with ten amazing rockstar painters that you just met, and you’re all going to move to New York and be picked up by major galleries.
I don’t know if there’s a big difference between ‘96 and now. There were definitely career-hungry types but most people tend to apply when someone they admire is going to be there, or be lecturing there. I feel like this aspect is still the same. There was a young artist there in ‘96 who specificallywanted to meet her idol. That person turned out to be a nightmare and broke her heart. It was part of the process of taking away the mythology behind an artist’s work and it happens to everyone. It happens in college when you worship someone, they come and give a talk, they’re an asshole, and you have to contend with the difference between the person and their work. Or the person and their legacy, or their cultural impact. That’s the biggest thing for me. Being there was a lot of harsh reality checks.
I met Jacob Lawrence and Gwendolyn Knight there. Gwendolyn Knight wasn’t giving a talk. Bernarda Shahn, Ben Shahn’s wife, was still coming in the summer. She and Ben had a house on the property since 1966. She would still come and summer there sometimes. A bunch of women in my group got together and asked if we could invite Bernarda and Gwendolyn Knight to give a talk because it just felt like they were “only partners”. They were equally interesting, historically important artists who seemed to marry someone who stole the sunlight. Like Lee Krasner, the classic story.
And they decided to do the talk together. They spoke about the WPA, post-war abstract-expressionism, things they had seen from the ‘40s through the ‘60s in the New York art scene, and it was amazing. That happened because we were paying attention to the periphery. We were paying attention to other people engaged with or involved in Skowhegan that weren’t necessarily on the masthead. That was one thing that I’ll always cherish.
I’m one of those artists who, for better or worse, is kind of deeply obsessed with art history. For me Skowhegan remains this magical place where history IS. The opportunity to sit down one-on-one in a safe space out of the city and really engage and talk about your work with someone you admire and wanted to meet or bounce your ideas off of is there.
DE: Yeah, I think that’s really the great strength of Skowhegan. I actually didn’t know any of the professors or faculty that were going to be there my summer with one exception, and that person wound up being a big letdown like you described. What was really valuable to me at Skowhegan was meeting the other participants there: young artists that were really passionate and committed to what they were doing, They were really generous with their time and willing to talk about their work and my work in a one-on-one setting. I’m sure people can understand that as a concept but the reality of the experience is so much different than trying to talk about it abstractly.
JJ: I think grad school studio visits are so institutionalized and have so much to do with your surroundings. There is a lot of weird fucked up pressure when you’re in a program with the same 30 or 60 people building a thesis. I went to Skowhegan after Rutgers. I had more breakthroughs and more evolution at Skowhegan than I did during two years in grad school. Totally. 100%. Part of it was fresh eyes and different people, because MFA programs are can be a little incestuous nucleus and by the time you’re graduating you know everybody’s spiel. Nothing’s fresh.
DE: I did the reverse. I went to Skowhegan the summer before I started grad school. It was a blessing and a curse. It was great because Skowhegan was everything I hoped it would be in many ways. It set me off in a really good direction. But at the same time it created a bit of an unrealistic expectation of grad school, and grad school ended up being a bummer.
JJ: An expensive bummer.
DE: Yeah. I got away with not having to pay which is great and I am totally thankful for it. I got really lucky with that, but it was still a bummer, which is sad that I have to admit.
JJ: It’s fairly recent, maybe the last 25 years or so, that you have to get an MFA to be a studio artist. And part of that I think is a bit of a sham. It used to be “if I get a masters then I can always teach.” We’ve all seen the parallel universes of people who try to work while they try to make their art, or applying for grants like it’s their job, versus people that start teaching and never make work again. It’s heartbreaking how many people I know got sucked into institutional politics and their own work suffers. Those people are the teachers that have heart, and care, and are invested in their students. I had a professor at Rutgers that had no office hours and lived in New York: a pretty hot-shot artist. They would come in and do their 3-hour lecture class and they were out.
DE: Yeah, it’s unfortunate that it can be so tough to balance teaching with a personal practice, but both demand so much attention and effort. I can understand how many people struggle to do both equally.
Lets move on to your work. In one of your previous interviews, you said you have a sign in your studio that says “Don’t Overthink, Do.” Do you still have that?
JJ: Now there’s a sign up that just says “Relax.”
DE: Can you talk about these little reminders that you have?
JJ: I had that note up because I think a lot of conceptual artists fall into the trap of undoing their gesture before they make a mark. It’s very easy to fall into that place. I think it’s endemic of the time period in which I was educated and it’s probably still going on today. Theory and deconstruction is put upon your studio practice. The kind of artist I admire the most just makes and makes and makes and lets the world edit. The editing comes after. For me that note was just a reminder to not get paralyzed, and not deconstruct things before you even make the first move. Making minimalist work is hard. It’s very condensed. It’s very intense. It’s a lot about tension and space and negative space. Sometimes moving something a half an inch means having to really look at it and live with it for a couple of days. Things get really heady and really Buddhist in a way. You end up moving it back two inches the opposite way and that’s what works. It’s all about process. Process is a fascinating thing. I love speaking to artists about their processes because it’s just so crazy usually.
DE: I have a question along those lines. I got to see some of your acoustic sound panels at your show at The Kitchen. I remember enjoying them and not really understanding their relationship to music at all. I just saw them as abstract compositions. I understood you were using acoustic materials, but I didn’t contend with that conceptually. I was looking at them materially and formally. I don’t know anything about your relationship to music but I thought they were really enjoyable as formal works. I was curious to know how you feel about my reading because I know your conceptual relationship is something you speak about quite frequently.
JJ: Once they’re out in the world it’s up to the viewer. Most pieces of mine hopefully have a multitude of entry points. I think that that’s a strength in the work. I can lecture for an hour about black paintings and the legacy of Ad Reinhardt, but if you don’t see that when you walk in, and instead stick your ear up to one of the paintings because you think it’s a speaker, then that’s three times as exciting. That happened a lot at The Kitchen because the speakers were mounted on the ceiling; there was an acoustic moment where everything was a whirlwind and you didn’t really know where the sound was coming from. I hadn’t anticipated how many people would walk up and stick their ear next to it, but what’s lovely is that the reverse happens: the panels are actually acoustic absorbers so the closer you get to them the quieter it gets. I love having a formalist read on the work because that’s super important to me.
DE: You have an extremely sharp aesthetic sensibility while working in a minimal, formal aesthetic. It’s so easy to screw that up and make it boring or uninteresting. It seems almost effortless to you. Do you make mockups or do you go right into the materials? Do you have fabricators make the pieces? They’re so polished when they’re done and ready.
JJ: The acoustic panels are fabricated by a company that does soundproofing for recording studios. It’s a very old-school direct relationship with an industrial company. I’m just repurposing what they already put out in the world.
DE: I know you get the panels but do you have them attached to the backing and painted by them?
JJ: Oh, no, I do it myself and it’s torture. The Sikkema show that just came down was the first time a friend said “why don’t you just use a paint sprayer?” I have a lot of conversations about the easier way to get there. It’s probably because I’m a masochist (laughter). It’s probably because there’s a part of me that loves and hates painting at the same time —-I’m still really struggling with that.
In a million years I didn’t think I was going to go back to the rectangle on a wall. Those paintings are made old-school Kenneth Noland style with sponges and rollers, then dry brushed on top of the paint to get rid of any lines from the roller. When the acoustic panels arrive I treat them very much like collage material. I’ll basically make color field paintings, then the panels are hammered on top with finishing nails which go into the armature. That’s the “one inch to the left or right creating tension” aspect. I’m also using an industrial glue that you use for automotive purposes, because acoustic panels are made of fiberglass. It’s fiber and canvas. It’s like the inside of a car door. I had to do a lot of strange adhesive investigating.
DE: And you make them yourself in your studio?
JJ: Yes, which means my production is low. If something is nailed or hammered down crookedly the whole piece is shot. If you make a black painting and make a mark on it you have to sand the whole thing down and start the surface all over. It’s a love-hate relationship. It’s very labor intensive. In the last two bodies of work, my biggest point of concern, for my own mental health, is that when you put something machine made next to something hand made, there’s a contrast.
There’s a scrutiny to the hand-made part. When they’re on the same surface, that tension becomes more apparent, and the scrutiny gets even higher. A registrar receives a piece and calls me and asks me if there’s a tiny pencil mark on the side. That’s my hand. It might not look like it, but my hands are in this work. It’s kind of intense.
DE: Having made a bunch of ultra finished works, it drives me insane and I really hate doing it. I would be happy to move away from that as soon as possible. Sometimes it’s what you have to do I guess.
JJ: Absolutely, brother! And of course the pieces that I have literally had tears over did not move. They’re still at the gallery. Strangely, the ones that came more easily were the ones that people gravitated to. And it’s like “really?” The big black pieces were like six weeks of deep evolvement.
DE: It’s funny: you’d think working in black would be easy, but it really shows more marks than anything else. You’d think it’d be the opposite.
JJ: I know, and I don’t know how many more white paintings I have in me either.
DE: Same problems.
JJ: The first time I really went that light, I would say if you look at it twice, it gets dirty. Just putting your eyes upon the surface makes marks appear.
DE: It’s like the Heisenberg principle.
JJ: On a super morose tip, I was talking to a good friend of mine about the level of scrutiny that kind of work demands and I thought about all those artists that committed suicide. That’s horrible, but think about Mark Rothko or Fred Sandback or even Agnes Martin’s sort of self-banishment. I think that if you have the kind of personality that can feel satisfied and feel the grace of a single line, it gets pretty weighty. You have to confront the “it’s not enough” attitude of the world. It demands a level of criticism that is really opposed to the type of personality that makes that type of work. It’s fascinating.
DE: Sorry, can you sort of rephrase that? Your friends or people who make super minimal work - their personalities don’t reflect that?
JJ: There are the kind of people who can see the tenderness in a single line, and can feel satisfied with a simple gesture, whereas with minimalist works, with how they are read, are in a position where the simple gesture is not enough. The viewer can say, “that’s all?” Those two things are hard to reconcile. There’s a certain kind of person who walks up to an Agnes Martin and their jaw drops; they love it and they’re mesmerized. And there’s a certain type of person who just walks by it because it means nothing to them. It’s nothingness.
DE: Do you see a lot of that in people who aren’t trained in reading minimalist work? In my experience, it’s been difficult to find people that really get into or understand minimal work unless they have the extremely privileged education that helps frame that work within a specific context in history.
JJ: I agree, but there’s also the Buddhist, the tender-hearted, the type of person who doesn’t just walk by pictures at the Met, pop a selfie and keep going.
I spoke to an old security guard at the Met and he said “There’s more cameras that come to the Met than people now.” I would sit down in front of a painting and give it a little minute. This is when I start to feel very old.
DE: I’ve always been confused as to why museums don’t have more seating to look at paintings. I love looking at art as much as anyone I know, but if I’m at a museum for a couple hours, I get tired of standing in front of work. There’s not much I can do once my body’s telling me to leave.
JJ: I had a great moment a couple months ago. I went to Houston and I’d been to the Menil many times but I hadn’t been to the Cy Twombly gallery before. I went in, turned to the right and there’s just one single huge and sweeping piece. I really got a lump in my throat. As you turn the corner it just keeps going and engulfs you. I literally took two steps back and they put a bench right there. I couldn’t help thinking, “this happens all the time.” You come into this room and you get your breath taken away and take a step back right into a well-placed bench.
DE: Are you for that bench or against it?
JJ: I had a show at the Contemporary Art Center in Atlanta. I commissioned a friend of mine, Scott Ingrahm, who is an artist but also a really great builder of things, to copy a bench I had seen at Matthew Marks at an Ellsworth Kelly show. I was like “let’s make that bench.” Sometimes benches just work.
DE: Another thing that came to mind earlier when you mentioned the pursuit of perfection in minimal work, is that whenever people talk about the intense labor that goes into making a machined look I can’t help but think about Donald Judd’s work. I’ve seen a lot of it, but I feel like whenever I see it in person it’s not as perfect as I perceive it to be in my mind. I think he’s kind of the ultimate poster child for that kind of perfection in minimalism. I think it’s, again, more of a myth than a reality.
JJ: I also think it has to do with how things are documented. The very first time I saw Mondrian in person I was shocked because I thought “what is that?” The roundness of a brush edge means that there are no crisp black lines in a Mondrian. There just isn’t. The paint has usually done that alligator skin split at this point. It was before we stretched canvas all the way around the armature and there’s copper nails on the outside.
DE: It’s not even square.
JJ: Every single time it’s reproduced it just looks like this perfect thing.
DE: Like it was printed. I actually had that exact same experience. Have you seen the Italian Furturist Show at the Guggenheim yet?
DE: I kind of had the exact same experience there, where I never cared too much for that work learning about it in art history, but then I saw the paintings in real life. They’re painted so beautifully that I did a 180 on my position. I really enjoyed that show, which I wasn’t expecting at all. The quality of the paint and the texture of the work doesn’t translate in documentation. It changed my understanding of the work completely.
JJ: Do you think that’s true in other works you don’t gravitate to?
DE: Absolutely. I’ve always understood that you have to see painting, or really all art, in person, but I think that this was probably the most eye-opening experience. I’d love to see a lot of work in person but you can’t always do that.
JJ: It makes me concerned about how much reproduction is out there and how it’s just expanding. I always wonder what people are doing with thousands of photos of artworks on their phone. What do you do with those? I tend to not have my phone out a lot of times but there are a ton of moments, like the first time I saw a Van Gogh, the first time I saw a Rothko, where I thought about taking a picture. Because you’re just like “It’s breathing.” You never saw that in your art history book.
We are nerding out. We’re staying in the canon, really strict.
DE: I think that’s important though. In the NEA interview that you did, you talked about one of your works that specifically referenced John Cage’s 4’33”. I actually would love to hear how you feel about the importance of that work within the history of avant garde music or sound-based. You said this funny thing about how every sound artist has to get their 4’33” out of their system which I can totally sympathize with. I feel I’ve even done myself in the past as well. It is sort of this monumental, groundbreaking piece that is a turning point in a lot of ways. I’d love to hear your take on it since you’re well-placed in between sound and visual art.
JJ: There’s so much written about it and so much I haven’t actually read about it.
DE: What about for you? Why did you gravitate toward it?
JJ: In a way, it’s so punk rock. It’s so bebop. It’s such a gesture. It’s generous and withholding at the same time. It’s smart and spiritual at the same time. It’s a score for sitting and paying attention to the sound that’s already around you. That is why I think it’s a critical, spiritual piece that’s had the gravity and the historic impact that it has had. But in another sense, it’s hilarious. It’s light. It’s so much about the pause in between seriousness of composing music, and the seriousness and weight of history. Saying “this is the piece; just my presence sitting at the piano is the work.” That, you know, is when it circles back to me to be this radical gesture that punk was; that bebop and modern jazz started, before all of them crossed over; and how Cage echoed the way people thought about music and composition and silence; his relationship to Merce Cunningham; his relationship to the visual arts. All that came after that gesture, that moment before he seeped into the history books. It’s such a radical, simple, smart moment. I think that’s why it resonates.
I love that you can buy 4’33” on iTunes. And what I love even more is that I first saw it maybe six years ago and the comments—does iTunes still have comments?—were amazing because people did not know what it was. They knew John Cage but they didn’t know the piece. There were all these warnings like, “don’t buy this, it’s nothing.” “Oh what a rip off. 99 cents for four minutes and 33 seconds of nothing.”
DE: Was it recorded live? Did it have like, the coughs of the space and stuff?
JJ: That’s interesting, because there’s a couple of different versions. Some are like that, but most of them are nothing. It’s a brilliant scam, to just have an empty digital file.
DE: How do you feel about that? Is that still the piece?
JJ: I think the piece has to be live. I think it absolutely has to be live.
DE: Do you think an empty MP3 is the same work then? Or is that actually a scam?
JJ: I don’t know. Scam is kind of harsh. It does the same thing: if you’re sitting in a room with headphones and you just heard a siren go by, you become a mindful listener for four minutes and thirty-three seconds. It’s still a successful piece. Hopefully.
DE: You’re right. So before this interview I asked you if you had any topics you wanted to talk about, something that has been on your mind or is pertinent right now?
JJ: I still feel like I’m on some weird planet by myself. I feel like I don’t have a lot of contemporaries which can be good and it can be bad. A) There’s not a lot of women making sound art. B) The abstract minimal aesthetic can definitely be challenging because there’s that question of whether or not you want the viewer to know who the maker is and how much weight and energy that has on the piece. So I think I’ve been a very slow-burn because it’s non-narrative, non-figurative work. Then I’ve had people tell me that the work is so much about the body to them and it’s so physical that of course in a way it has to do with the black body.
DE: You’ve mentioned that your work articulates this narrative or historical connection between black music of the era and the visual art that was being produced at that time. I’m not that well informed about it, but were those musicians looking at art?
JJ: That’s more the sound work. Where I’m getting my materials from really points the room, or points the installation in a specific direction. That’s where sound can come in as the signifier. The Hirschhorn show could be perceived as a really formalist nod to the Ellsworth Kelly room it was next to, and the Barnett Newman that was hanging down the hall. But then it sort of flips the read when you recognize Olly Wilson or Wendell Logan and some of the heavy hitting Jazz and Classical composers that I was pointing to in the sound work. Like I said in the beginning of the conversation,if you don’t get that and just come and enjoy a nice white room and look at a black painting, that’s great too. It’s my own justification because there’s a lot of guilt that comes with being an abstract artist.
DE: Why did you use the word guilt?
JJ: That’s my favorite word as a Catholic Midwesterner. Making non-figurative, non-narrative work, I occasionally feel like a unicorn.
DE: Do you feel like you’re not doing justice to your background in that sense?
JJ: No. I’m hopefully pointing to a lot of history and legacy of what a radical act that is, but also Martin Puryear and Alma Thomas. I feel like I constantly have to talk about how I didn’t fall out of the sky. How there’s some precedent to the work. And Valerie Cassel Oliver at CAMH—“Black in the Abstract” was a brilliant two part show that was way overdue. To see early Sam Gilliam paintings that were really hard-edge. There was Felrath Hines who was a guy I had never heard of. I think he was a registrar at the Smithsonian but he was a painter also. His work was amazing.
DE: I guess I’m kind of fascinated by this now. What would be a solution to the isolation that you feel?
JJ: Me not being neurotic. I think that’s a big part of it. I think that being born in 1968 and being educated at the peak of multicultural discourse in the ‘90s really put a circle around where I thought I should be in terms of the work and where I always desired to go with it. Now I’m 45 and for the last ten years—with or without being on the periphery, with or without being popular, not having a gallery for 18 years in New York, maybe because of the kind of work, maybe not, maybe I wasn’t ready—but once you make that decision to follow your own aesthetic, even if you’re a lone wolf, that’s the most satisfying choice.
DE: Sorry if I’m missing the point, but is that where the conflict is? Is the work not explicitly dealing with your identity? Is there some sort of discrepancy there that you’re thinking about right now or am I missing it entirely?
JJ: No, that’s an old vibe. That’s an old argument. It goes way back to “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” written in 1926 by Langston Hughs for The Nation. Am I an artist or a black artist? Am I a writer or am I a black writer? I think for me it’s definitely generational. I’m sure a lot of people I’m going to talk to at Skowhegan, artists of color, this isn’t even in their universe anymore. It’s kind of amazing and great. But I think that having a very specific mission and thesis, to put your shoulders back and stand strong and embrace a little strain of art history that is about non-narrative, nonfigurative work, even if I can only just keep pointing to Alma Thomas, then that’s been my mission. And that’s why I think it mostly is about my own neuroses because I don’t think everyone gets heavy all the time about where their art lineage is coming from. You do what you do.
DE: I think I can sympathize with you on that. It is quite the burden as a black artist, I think. It’s been described that way to me by my friends. It’s hard for me to understand as a straight white male and it’s hard to talk about too. I think our culture has made it difficult for someone to talk from a privileged position, as myself, to engage it and understand it fully. But I definitely understand that it’s a difficult thing, even for younger people, even though you just said you feel like it might not be as big of an issue anymore. Even if it’s not as apparent in the work, necessarily, the anxiety, not anxiety…
JJ: It is anxiety…
DE: The anxiety is there. In all art, I think most artists are trying to understand themselves through making and I think your identity is obviously central to that. So it comes up. And our culture still hasn’t quite gotten around racial disparities as much as we’d like to think.
JJ: There’s a big left-wing bloc that thinks “hey we voted for Obama, it’s all good” and it’s like “Wow, okay”. That’s it. It’s done. Black president. Check.
I am such an art nerd. I’ve cried two times in institutional settings: one was the first time I got a work in the permanent collection of the Studio Museum in Harlem, because that was just like family, lump in the throat, thinking about my mom and grand mom. And the second was showing next to Rauchenberg and Cage at the Menil. That was like “how the fuck?” The pieces I made at The Kitchen ended up next to Rauchenberg’s White Paintings at the Menil and they had 4’33” in the middle of the room under glass?! Child of hippies, black girl in Ohio in this moment? And The Studio Museum, what that meant. I’m just a “tenderoni” who’s obsessed with art history and my place in it.