Aaron Jones, Advantage Over, 2019, collage, 21 1/2 × 14 1/2 ".

Aaron Jones, Advantage Over, 2019, collage, 21 1/2 × 14 1/2 ".

Aaron Jones

Aaron Jones’s solo exhibition “Closed Fist, Open Palm” was a study in opposing forces, of embodied tension and explosive physical presence. Extending his investigation into how Black subjectivity is constructed—and how it might be undone—in this image-flooded era, the artist presented collages that posed pressing questions about how the effects of capitalism and colonialism on Black people can be charted.

Intimate in scale, Jones’s collages are culled from print publications one might expect to find in a middle-class North American living room. The artist tears apart and fragments sports periodicals, issues of National Geographic, aspirational lifestyle magazines, and children’s books, adhering them to one another to build composite figures whose status as subject or object is constantly under question. Untitled, 2019, for instance, assembles dozens of outstretched arms, which form a halo around a nose and mouth at the composition’s center. Like an endlessly proliferating Vitruvian Man, the taut arms flex with potential, while the hands reach toward unseen targets. The occasional basketball jersey that crops up in the background indicates where these limbs were sourced, but any bodily coherence in these moments quickly breaks down, especially as our gaze moves outward to a ring of writhing, octopus-like tentacles. Embedded near the heart of the piece is a portrait of a Black woman who is formally dressed, while close to her is an area where an image has been pasted and removed, leaving an empty, sandpapery patch. Similarly, in Energy Restoration, 2018, a towering statue seems to have toppled onto the ground, its oversize blue hand reaching pathetically toward the paper’s left edge. The rest of the creature’s mass is made up of mechanical forms—including solar panels and the interface of an unknown machine—that segue into a man’s suited shoulder and pairs of clasped hands. The sum suggests a body thrumming with energy that has been contained and calls to mind philosopher Elsa Dorlin’s description of the “colonized subject” as someone who “remains inert, in the tension of a muscularity permanently put on hold.”

By building new identities outside of the dominant white gaze, Jones’s collages speak back to colonial and capitalist processes of turning Black people into property. In two seemingly related pieces, the specter of this violence is worked out through Jones’s cutting of the paper. In Advantage Over, 2019, a flexing Black bodybuilder floats atop a cerulean backdrop while below him crowds of white onlookers at sports arenas cascade over one another like waves. The title of the work appears in the center of the image, suggesting a sportscaster’s play-by-play, but the piece is also tinged by a deep irony, prompting questions about who truly has the advantage in this type of spectatorial exchange. Golem, 2017, shown nearby, is a beast made from arms and hands, reaching for but never grasping the objects they seem to seek. A pursed pair of lips appears where the creature’s genitals should be. In these works, which evoke Hannah Höch’s collaged figures assembled from ethnographic museum catalogues, or David Hammons’s “rock head” sculptures, Jones deploys racial stereotypes to exaggerate and undermine them, pointing to the absurdity of an essentialist logic that allows people or entire cultures to be subsumed into objects.

Three new sculptures on an adjacent wall resembled altarpiece offerings: objects of contemplation that find the artist using plaster casts of his own hands, painted a shiny onyx, to ruminate on gesture as metonymic of experiencing one’s body as the frequent subject of outside scrutiny. Soft Bitter shows a single fist tensely raised in the air, while Nervous Prayer features two hands awkwardly clasped together. The grouping is resolved with Resting (all three works, 2020), which displays a hand in repose. Much like the rest of “Closed Fist, Open Palm,” this trio sets up a narrative of energetic potential thwarted and then liberated, and of the relief that accompanies the decision to refuse playing by rules that never included you in the first place.