March 20, 2016 Back To News

Jeffrey Gibson – Craft is/as the communication of a material – An Essay by Nicole Cherubini

In 2008 Jeffrey Gibson spent the summer in Santa Fe as a Fellow at the School of American Research. My then three-year-old son, Malachi, and I had the privilege of visiting him for a week. We ate amazing food, there was a wonderful craft fair at the folk art museum, visited his studio, the works. We spent one day at a hidden waterfall in Nambé Pueblo. Jeffrey had previously spent nine weeks there in 1990 as an apprentice for the sculptor Ernest Cloud Eagle Mirabal. I remember sitting on some rocks with Jeffrey and eating the largest, most delicious blackberries while Malachi frolicked in the water. We also spent a very sunny morning in Taos Pueblo – existing in the balance of the earth toned geometric adobe structures and the vast expanse of blue sky. In the afternoon, the weather changed dramatically, it became cloudy and cold just as we were heading to the annual feast day celebration. We bought woven blankets from Guatemala, wrapped ourselves tightly and settled in to watch the festivities. It was one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen. I sat next to Jeffrey, Malachi on his lap, and he spoke about all that we were seeing: the stories of the dances, what the dances were, how they danced, why they danced, the drumming, et al. We were all transfixed. I cannot remember how long we were there. However, what I do remember and can still see with absolute clarity is the color, the amazing array and formation of color and palette.

I love color. I have always especially loved Jeffrey’s use of color. I covet it. It was watching these dances and the dancers’ outfits where much of it made sense to me. There is a different sensibility to how colors are matched, placed and used: the neons with more neon with primaries with neutrals and then with patterns. Every part has a voice – color is not used to balance or subdue. I wondered at the time if this was all due to individual choice or the materials at hand. It did not seem to matter; the boldness and beauty outweighed everything else. They all existed with strength and vitality, even in the rain and the cold.

I think about this when looking at Jeffrey’s work, always. Through his use of materials and color, he subtly and persistently challenges one to see an alternative history without it being a narrative or illustration. Color abstractly acts with political purpose. It is a space that he inhabits beautifully and uses for its ability to express awareness.

With this, it only seems fitting that he should venture into the world of ceramics. Clay fits into an alternative history – it is one that is part of the known fine art trajectory, maybe the longest survivor, but it manipulates many other worlds as well. It encompasses a space between the two dimensions and three dimensions – sort of an unknown abstract uncomfortable-ness for many onlookers. The viewer must contend with form and surface, as well as design, art, taste and function. The maker must know all and blend them into a complete whole. It is highly technical and takes on the work of craft, but then must reject it. These new works of Jeffrey’s function as the materialist conversation of his paintings. Here the process leads us to the content. It is a seamless addition.

In each piece, we can see his deep interest in prehistoric works, brutalist architecture, fat lava ware and contemporary conversation. All of these balance for a complete discussion. This want to introduce clay stemmed from his interest in Mississippian culture ceramic heads. These incredible pieces are not what is taught or popularly thought of as Native American pottery. They are hidden gems in all of our aesthetic history. These “pots” are jars shaped like human heads, typically male, and the personages commonly appear to be deceased. They are typically 3-8 inches tall. They are considered to be the pinnacle of Mississippian culture ceramics and are some of the rarest and most unique clay vessels in North America.1 Mississippian culture started around 800 A.D and existed until around 1600 A.D. There is little in-depth knowledge about this mound building civilization that flourished in what is now the Midwestern, Eastern and Southeastern United States. Mississippian culture produced extraordinary ceremonial mounds including Cahokia Mounds (Illinois), Spiro Mounds (Oklahoma) and Etowah Mounds (Georgia).

Throughout modern history, the United States government and mainstream history have not acknowledged this culture and society as a significant civilization. It would too deeply challenge the harsh political decisions of expansion that it took on. It would give too much voice to a silence it has tried to create. Jeffrey has brought us to this place, this time, and then has added on the 800 years of choice since. These effigy forms are aware of their own history, contrary to the one imposed on them. He makes these small vessels into heroic, figurative monoliths. He has chosen to use a material that inherently shares a collective past again with such a subtle and abstract gesture.

Mississippian potters used paint, minerals and slip to color an entire vessel rather than as a decorative addition – a complete object. Jeffrey’s contemporary heads are laden with dripping, runny glaze, oozing almost. They are of different colors, tones, densities and even surfaces. It is both glorious and grotesque. There is so much of it, both covering and layering – two such different conceptual acts. The glaze reminds me of the first paintings I saw of Jeffrey’s, so many years ago. It is what I fell in love with: the layering, the oddness, the freedom, the control, the movement, and the strength in challenge. And now with his sculpture, the conglomeration of materials enhances it all the more. All of the years of painting, of sculpture and performance are now in these whacky, sometimes playful, sometimes brutal heads. One equally wants to examine and turn away from them. It is where all of it comes together. It is how clay makes the viewer uncomfortable but lustful – it encompasses all. It is of the home, the sacred, and of all art histories. It is part of the earth, the cosmology. And then with this, there is color. There is always such very good color.

— Nicole Cherubini, artist, New York

Born in Colorado, Jeffrey Gibson is currently based in New York. His father worked for the Defense Department, and as a child, Gibson lived in South Korwea, Germany and various cities in the United States. He received a BFA from The Art Institute of Chicago in 1995 and an MA from the Royal College of Art, London, in 1998. Gibson has exhibited widely, and the Denver Art Museum is planning a mid-career retrospective exhibition for him in 2017. The Nerman Museum owns his 2013 hanging sculpture American Girl, part of the Oppenheimer Collection, and his 2012 rawhide painting Shield No. 1, currently on view in the OCB first floor focus area, acquired with funds provided by the Barton P. and Mary D. Cohen Art Acquisition Endowment of the JCCC Foundation.

! Miscopy Department of Archives and History.

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