With “Jazz Covers from the J.R. Plaza Archive,” Mexican artist Iñaki Bonillas presents a new body of work to inaugurate another chapter of his notable project, the “J.R. Plaza Archive.” The series of 60 photographic works explores the language of photography and design in the visual communication of jazz.
Twenty years ago, the artist, known for his conceptual investigation of photography, inherited 30 binders of carefully arranged photographs and other personal materials from his grandfather José Rodríguez Plaza—a dedicated amateur photographer, who was born in Spain and immigrated to Mexico as a young man. This time capsule spanning one hundred years has been a working archive for Bonillas since 2003. Through a range of operations, he has transformed it into his own artistic inquiry in an analytical, conceptual, indexical and sometimes humorous or speculative way. At the core lies the question: What can photography still be for art at a moment when pictures are produced in the millions every second? The answer, for Bonillas, is found in the margins of the photographic tradition. Instead of creating new photographs, he works with those that already exist. In doing so, he questions how to approach and present (photographic) archives, and by exploring the peripheral and constituent elements of photography, he creates new realities and narratives.
This new series of 60 prints, each in the format of a 12-inch vinyl cover, draws from two points of inspiration: first, the original and intriguing self-portraits of his charismatic grandfather, posing in different roles as if he were a famous Hollywood actor—as Bonillas remarks, a selfie-artist avant la lettre. Second is his and J.R. Plaza’s shared appreciation of jazz. It is not just the music but also the album covers from the late 1950s and ’60s with their use of full color, authentic and intimate photography, and meticulously placed typography that fascinated Bonillas. Album covers by young designers such as Reid Miles, who produced some 500 for the legendary record label Blue Note between 1956 and 1967, became stylistic landmarks and were visual signifiers for what jazz was: “modern, vibrant and free.”
In his grandfather’s self-portraits, Bonillas found striking matches for many of these cover images. For the works on view here, the artist removed all text and typography and replaced the jazz icons with the imaginary celebrity J. R. Plaza, embedding him in a variety of abstract forms and a rich palette of colors.
Bonillas’s cameraless photography—he calls himself an attic photographer—creates multiple new valences in this game of equivalence. The designs that originally served to underline the music and the musicians who made it are now brought into the foreground, making tangible the influence of abstract art. Foremost, it is the migration of forms, ideas and identities that inform Bonillas’s work. Presenting the prints in an interrupted grid system with gaps underlines the notion that J.R. Plaza’s self-portraits become reminders for all the female and male jazz musicians not visible.
Also on view in the exhibition, the work “Soundtrack for a Still” consists of five identical photographs of a man dancing in a flock of pigeons in Venice. However, the perception of the image varies, as each print is paired with a different jazz tune. Again, Bonillas draws our attention to the shifts in meaning through the interconnection of music and photography, and opens them up to endless interpretations.
Iñaki Bonillas was born in Mexico City in 1981, where he currently lives and works. He participated in “Utopia Station” at the Venice Biennale in 2003, and showed work at the Prague Biennale in 2005 and 30th São Paulo Biennial (2012). Significant solo presentations include “Secretos,” Casa Luis Barragán, Mexico City (2016); “Arxiu J.R. Plaza,” La Virreina Centre de la Imatge, Barcelona (2012); "Pensamiento circular: Una antología,” MAM, Mexico City (2009); “El topoanalista,” Matadero, Madrid (2007); “Intervención al pabellón,” Pabellón Mies van der Rohe, Barcelona (2005); and “Little History of Photography,” MuHKA, Antwerp (2003). He has participated in numerous group exhibitions, including shows at MARCO, Monterrey and ESPAC, Mexico City (both 2019); Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University (2018); Moscow Museum of Modern Art (2015); Jumex Museum, Mexico City (2013); Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris (2012); Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego (both 2011); MUSAC, León (2010); Bard College, New York and Kunstmuseum Basel and Malmö Konsthall (all 2009); The Power Plant, Toronto (2003); and HKW, Berlin (2002). For his Artist Web Project “Words and Photos,” commissioned by Dia Art Foundation in 2014, Bonillas digitized the “J.R. Plaza Archive” and simultaneously created an extensive index of associated words “mirroring” the image database.