New York

Samuel Levi Jones, Plain Sight, 2019, deconstructed footballs, 70 × 40".

Samuel Levi Jones, Plain Sight, 2019, deconstructed footballs, 70 × 40".

Samuel Levi Jones

The art of Samuel Levi Jones is one of wholesale material reconstitution, in which the artist physically deconstructs conceptually and emotionally loaded objects to the point of abstraction. He presents his quasi-painterly remakings as metaphors for the cut and thrust between warring—or, perhaps, just differing—perspectives on the social and the artistic. His creative alchemy doesn’t have the narrative complexity of, say, Dario Robleto’s, as Jones is more concerned with a consistent and easily digestible look and feel—he doesn’t strike one as somebody who eagerly dives into the rabbit holes of history and happenstance. Yet his lack of specificity is sometimes displaced by a subtler, cumulative force.

Jones’s solo exhibition “Mass Awakening” gathered fourteen works characterized by the pairing of pleasant, picturesque exteriors with tangled origin stories. One trio of canvases—Secrets of Ugliness, Interconnectivity, and Positive Vibration, all 2019—appears to combine rough, distinctly organic surfaces with rich coloration and geometric designs evocative of traditional American Indian blankets. As it turns out, all three are made from pulped American-history books. Jones’s suggestion here is, of course, that the country’s story has largely been wrongly written and taught by the conquerors, a state of affairs that still demands radical corrective effort.

In Extract, 2019, law books form the sole ingredient of the artist’s nutritious-poisonous medium. The result here is not as heraldic as are the aforementioned panels, but felt more like literary pea soup. Flecks of blue and orange drift in a wan sea of pale green, suggesting a mire of obtuse rules and regulations either punctuated by points of clarity or polluted by toxic additions. Law, like history, perpetually reaches for but can never achieve a definitive state; as its contexts change, so does its substance—or at least it should. Extract, along with another piece, Eruption, 2019, in which the featured books are not pulverized but instead form a patchwork of stitched-together covers and spines, seems again to argue for a thoroughgoing (or even brutal) reassessment of the codes we live by.

The specter of violence hovered closer still in four works that address Jones’s experience of school sports, specifically focusing on the tendency in football to harbor physically and psychically barbaric attitudes toward race and sexuality. In Love and Fear and Touching Through Trauma, both 2019, Jones reconfigures tackling-pad covers into patterns evocative of Gee’s Bend quilts. In Plain Sight, 2019, he goes one step further and coats a canvas in deconstructed footballs, producing from their ovoid brown, white, and blue pelts an undulating landscape that suggests a territory still defined by hegemony and segregation. And in Giant, 2018, the only sculpture in the show, he repurposes a used (and presumably abused) tackling sled. It’s a raw-looking thing, an angular steel form suggesting an unyielding opponent, or a device one might find in an s/m club.

Finally, in another group of works, Jones utilizes dismantled print portfolios, combining disparate bits of board and fabric in arrangements that are perhaps a bit too decorative to really hit home. The ongoing shift in artmaking tastes that the artist seems to be confronting in this grouping is hardly the sort of pressing issue that fueled the other objects in “Mass Awakening.” Yes, these portfolios clearly provide irresistibly colored and textured material to work with. Unlike, say, Matisse’s late cutouts, however, Jones’s approach to beauty here seemed to be about the need, not to innovate, but simply to fill a gallery with more stuff—attractive enough yet, even when purportedly confronting or embodying savagery, oddly timid.