Artist Jeffrey Gibson Melds History, Tradition, and Modernity In Beautiful New Exhibition
"Someone prepared this mighty show" – Emily Dickinson
It’s easy to distract yourself with the bright and shiny objects of Jeffrey Gibson. They confess. Part soothsayer, part animal, part pop—the messages are clear. Gibson’s multi-disciplinary practice is filled with sensory detail, whether it’s sculpture, painting, performance, video, light or sound—one becomes the other. The natural progression from one body of work to the next is as self-fulfilling and instinctual as a heart beat. He bangs the drum.
Gibson is an artist of both Cherokee and Choctaw descent. In his sculptural work, Gibson uses the technique, craft, and material of his Native American heritage while simultaneously appropriating the text of adjacent cultural production: literature, pop music, sermons, hymns. The results are bold, composite art pieces melding history and the ephemeral, locked-down, beaded, and bedazzled into three-dimensional space. The experience is both cataclysmic and layered.
Gibson makes decisions quickly, almost effortlessly, leaning on his intuition for nearly every aspect of his art making, but if you are viewing his work for the first time, this may not seem so apparent. Gibson’s pieces are technically proficient and meticulous, involving intricate pattern making, decoration and hand-working processes. At first glance, this might evoke systems and order more than the wilderness of the intuitive mind. Words are often beaded into his pieces—titles of songs, quotations from famous authors—all chosen with intention. Gibson is a teacher.
Entering into his sixth year of robust and sustained studio output, Gibson’s studio has emerged as one of the more reliable employers in this rural reach of the Hudson Valley, with 10-14 full-time assistants helping to realize his complex and labor-intensive work for exhibition around the world. When I arrive at his studio—a reclaimed elementary school on the outskirts of Hudson, NY—one of the first subjects we discuss is sustainability. Keeping up at this pace is not sustainable: he repeats the words of one of his tenants, Paul, a 70-year-old painter who rents a classroom space in Gibson’s school: “Everything’s a first time. As an artist, it’s that edge that’s interesting. That’s where you should be, and what you should be doing.”
Soon, several beaded works will spirit away to Los Angeles’ Roberts & Tilton Gallery for a solo exhibition, titled In Such Times, opening August 9th. Religion animates the new work. “LAND, SPIRIT, POWER” adorn a beaded piece in progress. I learn that both of Gibson’s grandfathers were Southern Baptist Ministers as I read the text beaded into a tapestry in progress, a line pulled from a 1930s sermon, “The Devil and God meet at Church.”
I begin to feel that this ‘schoolhouse atelier’ is more than just a place to work. For anyone who’s ever spent time in a congregation, it’s like the collection plate finally went around enough times to build the new Church. But is it fashionable to make work that’s so rooted in the spiritual, welled in worship? Who cares? Club culture, fashion, music, and dance are all forms of a congregation, of inclusion. I admire Gibson for not skirting devotion. I believe his studio and his craft depend more on faith and compassion than on the intricacies of the contemporary art industry. “For the studio to work, it requires a huge amount of trust. Aside from the challenges of paying somebody—valuing their time, their labor, their creativity, their skill—I need to trust these bodies in the space as extensions of me.”
Though faith, compassion and trust seem to be the true fuel of his studio, Gibson is running a business, and he is still unsure how he feels about that. The weird thing about running a business as an artist is being able to continue to tread that line of what can be seen as ‘important work.’Artists can’t make things knowing that their intention is to sell it. “The last performance piece I did, ‘LIKE A HAMMER,’ was so uncomfortable. When I proposed it, it fell over like a dead tree in a forest, nobody responded, but I did it. Nobody wrote about it, nobody spoke about it, and I think, ‘Why did I do it?’ But since then, it’s become one of the most resonant pieces for people when they see it. I’ve had Native gay students contact me after seeing it. Now it’s being requested for exhibition, and my movements in the performance are being contextualized as an anti-colonial gesture.”
As Gibson transitions toward performance and video work, it is worth noting that in a time when most people constantly broadcast their thoughts and presence into the world with impulsivity, Gibson has chosen to make performance work that elongates our sensitivity to the natural world. In “LIKE A HAMMER,”—commissioned for SITE Santa Fe’s 2016 Biennial, SITE Lines—Gibson favors intuitive movements based on animals—a fox, a horse, a butterfly. Donning garments that were inspired by previous figurative and sculptural works, Gibson becomes his ‘art,’ and he is anthropomorphically transformed. During the course of 90 minutes marked by gestures and the playing of a drum, Gibson scrawls messages onto paper mounted on the wall—signifiers, documents—like cards in a Tarot deck: Transform Like a Butterfly. Horse Power. Loyal Like a Dog. Jump Into the Void. Jack Like a Rabbit. Flirt Like a Fox. Retreat Like a Porcupine.
Gibson truly loves to paint, but as our discussion went on he was sheepish about it, revealing an endearing vulnerability. He almost always works alone when he paints. He explains that his new paintings, which mark a return to regular canvas (some of his recent paintings were made on deer or elk hide), don’t specifically have anything to do with anything Native American. “With all the other work there is so much explanatory, expository information with the references. The paintings are really just about geometric abstraction. When it comes to just art making, I’m totally satisfied with abstract painting. There will be no paintings in the upcoming L.A. exhibition.”
While collaborating on an essay for a catalog of his work, Gibson was tasked with providing advice to his past self from the future. Gibson paraphrased just a small part of the essay during our conversation. “Believe that something greater than you is watching and only sends what you can handle. Listen and be patient.
I think back to Paul, the 70-year-old painter, and make my own opinion. Art is not practical and is rarely sustainable. Art takes time. Devotion. You make art because you have to. It is salvation.
Written by: Parker Shipp
All images courtesy the artist and Roberts & Tilton, Los Angeles, CA
Photography by: Peter Mauney