Keep Looking: Samuel Levi Jones Speaks with Leah Ollman
Oct 20, 2018 / by Leah Ollman / Art in Print
In 2011, Samuel Levi Jones was given a set of encyclopedias by a fellow grad student at Mills College in Oakland, California. While most turn to such compendia for what’s contained within, Jones was driven to examine what the books lacked—namely, serious representation of African-American lives an accomplishments. The presumption—and abuse—of historical and cultural authority has driven his work ever since. He has taken to ripping the covers off of encyclopedias, law books and medical texts, then stitching them together in grid patterns or quilt-like patchwork designs—dismantling the material as a metaphor for dismantling unjust structures of power. In 2014, the Studio Museum in Harlem awarded Jones the Joyce Alexander Wein Artist Prize in recognition of his work and promise.
Before he starting skinning books, Jones made two pieces from the 1972 Encyclopedia Brittanica his friend gave him. One, 48 Portraits (Underexposed), consists of inkjet images of African-American notables, 24 women and 24 men, printed on paper made from pulped pages of the encyclopedia, with such low contrast as to be barely discernible from the deep gray ground. The work came in response to Gerhard Richter’s 48 portraits of 19th- and 20th-century luminaries painted for the German Pavilion at the 1972 Venice Biennale.1
Jones, who maintains studios in Indianapolis and Chicago, spoke with Leah Ollman about the thread of critical engagement that has run through his work from the beginning.
Leah Ollman: What was it about the Richter piece that provoked you to answer it?
Samuel Levi Jones: A friend of mine mentioned Richter’s piece to me because of the fact that the portraits were all of white men. I thought, what’s so important about this? I was thinking about this singular representation of people, and about the overlooking of everything else, about individuals who had done interesting things that weren’t talked about in history classes, and how that work was just a perpetuation of it. I immediately started thumbing through the pages of the encyclopedia, and—well, it was predominantly white men.
LO: How did you find the portraits you used in your piece?
SLJ: The library at Mills College, being a women’s college, had alternative sources to what you’d typically see—African-American encyclopedias, books that contained women. It was helpful, being in that context.2
LO: Before 48 Portraits (Underexposed), you made another piece based on that Brittanica set.
SLJ: Yes, 736 Portraits came first. I started by removing formal portraits of people [from the encyclopedia pages]. There were black individuals in the encyclopedia who were sports figures, who may have been included under basketball or track and field. I didn’t utilize those figures. I used others who weren’t under a subcategory but who had their own place within the encyclopedia, under their own last name. There were thirteen African-Americans. All the rest of the portraits were white figures. For 736 Portraits, what I did was reverse, or omit, the white figures by turning the panels they were mounted on around so they faced the wall. Those objects were like black squares, about a quarter- or a half-inch thick. I spread them out and dispersed the black figures in amongst those, highlighting the black figures by having them face out, so that you can actually see their portraits.
LO: How did you come to the format of 48 Portraits (Underexposed)?
SLJ: I made five different versions. In the first one, you could totally tell who the person was. Then I began abstracting it. I blew the portraits way up, then cropped the faces so you could see only parts of features. You just saw large dots. That was too obscure. Then I underexposed the portraits so they were barely visible. If people didn’t stop and spend a moment for their eyes to adjust, they would think the portraits were just black squares. I had to tell them to keep looking. I was playing with trying to be visible, and pushing against being visible.
LO: Were you pursuing the visibility/invisibility metaphor from the start?
SLJ: No, it was eventually what I came to. Simply highlighting individuals who weren’t visible from that source was my initial idea, but it needed to be pushed. Different iterations came through conversations with faculty and my peers.
LO: You want to bring some attention to these unrecognized figures, but you present it as a challenge. You make the viewer work for it.
SLJ: I think there’s a lot of important information we could use that we miss out on for various reasons, through distractions or through laziness. If you take a moment and start digging a little deeper, you can find things that are extremely relevant—and then question the reasons why that information isn’t available, why it is hidden. And then, you can go further into the layers of obscurity, and try to connect the dots as to what it all means. I think this piece is a way of encouraging individuals to do that, to look beyond what we’re presented. There has to be a push to encourage individuals to be curious.
LO: There’s a through-line in photography, from its beginning, of making visible what is not visible to the naked eye. You invert that, and make what is visually available harder to see.
SLJ: It’s an interesting thing, when you think about photography in relation to events—historical events—and the legitimization of whether things happened or not. Photography used to be more trusted. Now, even though there’s proof, we’re back to questioning what is factual and what isn’t factual. And when something happens, and the documentation gets presented as fact, what do we do with it? Holding someone accountable isn’t happening, or it’s happening very little. And now we’re provided with so much information, there’s the fear that we are becoming numb.
LO: In your work using the covers of encyclopedias and other reference books, the spines are often facing in, so the titles can’t be read, again making less accessible something that’s typically clear.
SLJ: More and more now, I’ll use text within the titles, and there are a few works I’ve made where there’s text on the works. I’ll redact some of the text that exists on the covers and make different words or phrases. Maybe that’s something that can be pushed a little bit more. It just depends on how I’m feeling in the moment.
LO: From the start, you’ve intentionally shown us only part of what’s there to see and to know, calling attention to what’s left out visually, verbally and by extension culturally and historically.
SLJ: I’m encouraging unlearning what we know and what we think we know, and being open to the idea of relearning—not so much through these texts but through alternative texts, texts that are kept out of classrooms for certain reasons, different information from different sources. Growing up, I was never much of a reader. Over the past few years, I’ve been trying to read more, and reading things that would never have been presented to me as an option. That’s what I’m getting at.
LO: You’re helping people recognize what they haven’t been exposed to, what’s been suppressed, what’s been invisible?
SLJ: Yeah. And even encouraging people to look at things that societal norms might label as crazy.
LO: There’s a lot of trust involved when we assume a source of information is valid. The texts you use implicitly claim to be authoritative. What do you want to set in motion when you destroy those books?
SLJ: I’m looking at the power structure of information, how information is distributed, who controls it. In reality, those sources were created by individuals, who, for the most part, we don’t know anything about. We need to take the time to engage with anyone and everyone as if they are just as important and powerful as any source there is, and to look within ourselves and feel that we are just as powerful as those other sources.
LO: Most reference texts are used now in digital form, but there’s still a huge visceral impact seeing the material versions ripped and flayed.
SLJ: I have a friend who gives me a hard time about destroying books. That’s only happened a couple of times. Maybe more people are feeling it but aren’t so bold as to say it. I’d rather have a conversation about the destruction of the body—the way that we destroy each other and each other’s bodies—than the destruction of a book, which I’m using as a reference to the destruction of the body. To go beyond that to the deeper meaning.
LO: I was wondering if you felt any resonance between your work and the dialogue now around memorials that honor proponents of racism and other injustices. Does the movement to take them down or recontextualize them feel like it comes from a similar impetus?
SLJ: It is interesting. Those memorials represent something from a historical standpoint. The things that those individuals stood for are still happening, but in a different way. Removing the object without having the conversation around how those same things are still happening— without dealing with them—is not solving the problem. In some ways, it’s like removal is buffering the real problems. It’s a way to say, let’s get rid of this to get people to calm down, but the real issues aren’t being addressed.
LO: And once you start removing these markers, how far are you willing to go?
SLJ: Just imagine obliterating Mount Rushmore, what discussions that would lead to. There’s a huge amount of reconciliation that has to be done. The removal of those statues is just a minor scratch upon the surface that you have to look at a certain way in the light to even see. More destruction needs to happen.
I think that through destruction, conversation happens. The deeper you go with the deconstruction, the more you provoke discussion, or even policy change. What’s going on with the object reflects what’s going on behind the object, a greater collective consciousness.
In reference to my work, it’s like I don’t simply “remove” a book, but try to talk about the underpinnings of why I’m removing it.
My concern is that we engage with the current moment as much as we’re engaging with the past. We’re letting things continue that shouldn’t be continuing. There’s so much more that we could be doing. Even though I’m optimistic, I have frustrations, and those are my frustrations.
LO: In addition to the work using book covers, you’ve also made sculptures out of pulped texts. Recently you started making pieces using football skins and other football equipment. Some of it is from schools you attended. What significance does that material hold for you?
SLJ: I come from a working-class town [Marion, Indiana] where sports were extremely prevalent and important—you don’t make it out of the town unless you’re able to retain information and regurgitate it well, or you’re a very talented athlete. What little athletic ability I had enabled me to go to a university. It wasn’t until I left that I was able to think about other things and different possibilities, and to engage with art.
I went back to the place I came from and got that material to revisit it, rethink it. I’m grappling with it, being told that [football] was the important thing. I think of the NFL and all the complications of that, and how up until 2015 it was a tax-exempt entity. People go along with that and don’t question it, people who frequent these events and pay all this money, and these entities don’t give back to the cities, where schools are struggling. Those are the things I’m thinking about. There are so many layers to it, even at a collegiate level, the billions of dollars that college sports bring in. Where is that money going?
One piece I made, I took to the university where I played, and rubbed it in the turf of the practice field for 60 minutes, which is the duration of a game. Another piece I took to the junior high school where I very first played. Dealing with the actual material takes me back to that place and where I was at that time. It’s really strange, like having a dream.
LO: Good dream or bad dream?
SLJ: Both. From junior high through college, there were these really good moments, and there were bad moments. I finished on a bad note, so it’s like jostling with those bad things, getting through it, and engaging with the positive. So what do I do with those football materials? You can’t just put negative energy into it. There’s some positive energy that has to go into it as well.
I don’t want to engage with the work and the material and the thoughts that I’m having about what’s going on from the stance of being a pessimist. I try to imagine a positive outcome from it.