4 Questions: Samuel Levi Jones

Mar 26, 2015 / by Courtney Willis Blair / Forbes

There’s something to be said (and held closely) about quietude in a time when shock and volume are firmly aligned with power and value. It’s something more to explore that power and value, in all its systems and intricacies, through a lens of stillness. But Samuel Levi Jones does it and does it well, in a most thoughtful manner, through his brilliant works on canvas that incorporate the covers of encyclopedias and law case text books.

It is this engagement to material, raw and aggressive, that put him in the running for the Studio Museum’s lusted-after Joyce Prize of which he took home along with a cool $50,000 and that brought on solo shows at the Studio Museum in Harlem (opening today) and Indiana’s Museum of Contemporary Art (opening this fall). He’s also in this year’s Mistake Room biennial exhibition. So we caught up with the artist, represented by Papillion, Los Angeles, to discuss his first exhibition in New York, his interest in material, and what that quietude is all for.

This is your first exhibition in New York. Can you tell me about Unbound, how it came to fruition, the work that will be on view, and how it speaks to your practice as a whole?

I’m extremely excited about my first show in New York being at the Studio Museum Harlem. In late 2014, Naima Keith (Associate Curator, Studio Museum Harlem) and I started having a conversation about exhibiting at the Studio Museum. Unbound is a continuation of the work that I have been constructing from encyclopedias, which is about the exploration of systems of knowledge and power. For this exhibit I chose to use law books, as I felt that it was pertinent to current events. This work is site specific, and the three works are much larger than any of my previous works.

Your critical exploration of systems of power and knowledge is the main focus of the exhibition. Can you explain its relationship to materiality and form? Is there a direct relationship to the body?

The relationship of the material to systems of power is very direct. I viewed the source material as the system of power. Encyclopedias in particular, contain a vast amount of information, but it is selective, and much equally important content is omitted. When working with the material I think about how the information was compiled and the methodology. I am ultimately thinking about information that is selectively left out. Much of the material I work with are the covers of the books. I refer to them as skins, and they define, and contain, the body of my work.

I find the evisceration of text in your work interesting given that you employ books as a symbol of knowledge. Can you talk a bit about this deconstruction and quieting of content?

The removal of the text pertains to numerous ideas that are competing for my attention. One thing that I think about are narratives which are not consistent with their contexts and do not fit. Deconstructing the material is a cathartic act as I physically handle these inconsistencies.

You stay within a limited color palette. Is this intentional? What is the significance of color within your practice?

The color is based upon what the material naturally gives me to work with. It is not intentional unless I choose to do some mixing of the source materials. Most of the time, the color palette is based upon the particular set of books with which I am working. Early in my work, I would typically construct a single piece from one set of books. More recently, I have been experimenting more with mixed materials to keep the aesthetic fresh. The color is not as important as the texture and other qualities of the material. I enjoy the challenge of working with a constantly changing source of materials.

Unbound is on view at the Studio Museum Harlem, New York through June 28, 2015. The TMR Benefit Exhibition is on view in Los Angeles through May 9, 2015.