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Samuel Levi Jones: Encouraging Inclusion Through Art

Samuel Levi Jones, "Tarika" (detail), 2016, deconstructed Ohio law books on canvas, 38 1/2” x 43”. © Samuel Levi Jones; Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co., New York.


by Nancy Nesvet

In today’s world, the art of the cover-up is being torn apart and exposed. An artist with strong New England ties, Samuel Levi Jones — with his upcoming early-2019 show at Northeastern University, part of “Personal to Political” — is causing waves in the art world as he reveals, tears up, paints over and deconstructs history.

In February 2017, Jones told me his work addresses “Systems of power and how we navigate the structure of those controlling. Who can and cannot participate, the way we think about history: who writes it and controls that information, the way we deal with history or not deal with it, processing it and thinking about where we are going.”

His artistic practice began when Jones, working at a recycling plant, wanted to find a way to recycle books. “I didn’t limit my process to being in the studio — works are more than objects; a person reacts to what they are seeing,” he said. “The material had a relationship to something very important, but once I deconstruct it, it becomes a very different thing.”

If questioning the association of art and politics, one need only look at these new history paintings to discover the tenor of our times and the attitudes of the artists who produced them. They are not rewriting history. It is still there, under the ropes, tears, paint marks, layers and water stains, but they are adding their own histories and views to the originals, making the art inclusive. According to Jones, “People think things have gone away but they’re still there. I’m just tearing the scab off the wound.” This work shows how civilization encompasses change, and art announces that change.

Inspired by hundreds of books that were slated to be discarded, Jones’ solo show, “Burning All Illusion,” at Galerie Lelong, (December, 2016-January 2017), featured large collages made of book covers from African-American history texts, old law tomes and encyclopedias that he painted over. At the opening reception and artist’s talk, Jones pointed out that although he doesn’t limit himself to activism in his art, “Without activism, we wouldn’t be where we are. How we discard things and what we discard is interesting.”

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