Great interview in Artinfo with Samuel Levi Jones when his Studio Museum in Harlem solo show "Unbound" debuted.



Hardcover books today are as much about sentimentality as they are about text, but the work of a young artist now on view at the Studio Museum in Harlem eschews textuality altogether for an aesthetic and material communion with these spined signifiers. Californian Samuel Levi Jones has taken over the three walls of the project space on the lower level of the Studio Museum in Harlem for “Unbound,” a small but compelling exhibition curated by Naima J. Keith.

Consisting of just three large works, Jones’s wall-mounted abstractions take as their source material the covers of hundreds of law books which the artist has ripped apart and refashioned into geometric patchworks. Motivated by national conversations on police brutality and the failures of the justice system, Jones, whose previous body of work used encyclopedias as a source material, turned to legal texts. But the only traces of language visible in the exhibition are those on the spines of the exhibition’s titular work, “Unbound,” the wall-mounted piece that anchors the space. “Unbound” is flanked on either side by two smaller works on canvas that display the deconstructed cover material, which varies between cardboard, paper, and canvas. Taken as a whole, the show is subtle yet expressive. In a recent conversation, the artist spoke with ARTINFO about his process and work.

Tell me a little about how you came to this site-specific project at the Studio Museum, and how it relates to the work you’ve done with books so far.

In terms of having a show, Naima [J. Keith] saw my work at the gallery I work with, Michelle Papillion in LA, and we started having a conversation about potentially having a show and it came down to me submitting a proposal. This was before they contacted me about the Wein prize, which is a separate thing, because people who have gotten the prize haven’t necessarily had a show there. That’s how it came to be.

In terms of working with the space and working with the material, the really large piece with the spines, titled “Unbound” — I wasn’t intending it to making it the size of the wall, but with it being a site-specific space it pushed me to make it much larger than I originally intended it to be. That piece is a continuation of a much smaller piece I made from spines. I made a piece from a set of spines from an encyclopedia, but it’s basically embedded in a wall, the spines themselves sewn together and embedded in a hole in the wall, and about half of it drapes off the wall.

I had considered making a larger piece with spines based upon that piece, and I came to the law books because I was really thinking about a lot of things, what happened around the country in terms of law and law enforcement and I immediately told myself I wanted to get a set of law books and work with those and see what they looked like visually, I really wanted to obtain the books. The first set of books I purchased was maybe about 500 books or so, and sort of a discovery because I had no idea what they were going to look like inside, on the outside they are all completely the same, the finish is the same, but underneath the material is completely different, from canvas-like material to paper-like material, which was really interesting. That was a discovery in and of itself and kind of a risk, so to speak, because I started acquiring the material thinking that’s what I was going to use for the show, and it just worked itself out.

You mentioned that national events relating to the justice system drove you to seek out the law books. Could you speak a little bit to the relationship between material and theoretical substance in your work?

A great deal of my work has been about encyclopedias, thinking about the framework of the encyclopedia as a power structure that controls information, thinking about who compiles that information and who has that information. Thinking specifically about information that has been left out, and intentionally left out. This cathartic process of deconstructing the materials as a stand-in for these structures that exist and reconstructing the materials to create something visually, to have dialogue about the sorts of things that are going on.

Would you consider this process with the materials as part of the work? And how did you get into working with books in the first place? 

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that one is any better than the other. For me personally it’s interesting, this process of deconstructing the material, it’s this personal thing, my way of grappling with these things from personal experience. Thinking about the ways in which we navigate the systems we exist within. It started off with a portrait series sort of in response to Gerhard Richter’s "48 Portraits,” first shown in the 1972 Venice biennale. The images he used were from an encyclopedia, and my immediate response was to get a set of encyclopedias, and by chance the very first set I got was from 1972, this coincidental thing.

So what I did is I recycled the pages to make prints, and I would end up printing my own portraits of 24 men and 24 women that could have been represented that year [in the encyclopedia] and weren’t. They’re under-exposed and you can barely see them, when you first see them they’re like black squares until your eyes adjust. Then I started experimenting with the materials more... all these layers. That's how I came to the books. Once I skinned the books and saw what they looked like underneath they were very visually interesting to me, so I ended up experimenting with ways of putting them back together and ended up putting them on canvas.

The material is directly associated with the ideas that I originally started thinking about and working with, it's fortunate that they're visually interesting and can create a conversation. Pretty much anyone can relate to the material, it's very recognizable, a natural entryway into the work.

Let’s go back to what’s on view at the Studio Museum.

So the biggest and most obvious piece is “Unbound,” which is composed of spines from the law books, and those are sewn together with a sewing machine — I sew all the materials. And the piece “Don’t Feel Right” is the front covers and the back covers of “Unbound.” “Unbound” was an entirely new piece. The scale of it was made for the space; I actually sourced five different sets of law books to have enough material to make the piece, about 1,700 books. The others are the largest ones I’ve done on canvas, they were made to fit the space. The scale of the encyclopedias are usually built around the amount of books that are in a set of encyclopedias. In a set of law books there can be several hundred books, so it opens up the possibility of working at scale.

Was there anything within those books, which I understand are at least in part California State Supreme Court decisions?

I just ended up with those sets of books… the only significant part is that they are law books.

Your educational background is in photography — how does that inform your practice today?

Photography was my entryway into making, and I didn’t start making until I was in my early 20s. I picked up a camera, and was interested in framing things. Photography was a way of seeing things, and the work that I’m doing now is an extension of that.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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