Like A Hammer

By Kalvin Valdillez, Tulalip News 

At the intersection of 1st Avenue and University Street in downtown Seattle is a large sculpture of a craftsman utilizing a hammer outside of the Seattle Art Museum (SAM). For decades, the museum has been the home to a collection of diverse artwork celebrating the many cultures from around the world, including several installations and exhibits that highlight traditional Indigenous artwork such as carvings and paintings.  This spring, the SAM decided to host a major exhibit that was first curated and featured at the Denver Art Museum and showcases the works of Choctaw and Cherokee Artist Jeffrey Gibson who, much like the craftsman sculpture, used a hammer to attract the masses and break into the art world, albeit metaphorically. 

“Like A Hammer as a title has always been conceptually and philosophically the idea of a hammer being used as a tool of deconstruction and reconstruction,” Jeffrey stated in a video displayed within the exhibit.  “In particular, like a DIY ethic. It’s this simple tool that a single person can alter something with.”

Located on the top floor showroom of SAM, the Like A Hammer exhibit invites visitors to explore Jeffery’s mind and vivid imagination as his creations serve as a reflection of who he is, all while paying tribute to the history of the art, material and words that inspire his artwork, drawing ideas from his culture, modern music and personal life.

The exhibit features over sixty-five unique pieces from Jeffery’s collection, all of which were created after 2011 following a huge revelation that found him deconstructing and reconstructing many areas of his life. In a lecture at the New York Studio School, Jeffery explained that he nearly gave up his passion after his material was rejected by several art museums and studios. He was so upset that one day he took all of his paintings to his local laundromat and put them through three back-to-back wash cycles. 

After hearing this news, Jeffery’s friend recommended him to a counselor for anger management. The counselor in turn suggested physical activity as a way to take out his aggression, so he joined a nearby gym and it was here where he had his first breakthrough.

“I sat down [with my counselor] for my first session and all these issues around race, class, gender and homophobia came out very easily,” he said. “What we began talking about was this disjoint between the mind and the body. Ultimately, he recommended that I worked with a physical trainer and the physical trainer is the first one who introduced me to the bag. When working out aggression on the punching bag, my trainer would ask me to name what I was punching – to name who I was angry at, what were my obstacles. And somehow this naming and projecting, and then literal hitting, was meant to unify what was happening up here [in my head] with what was happening in the body.”

The beaded Everlast punching bag is perhaps Jeffery’s most notable work to date. Approximately fifteen colorful bags are displayed throughout the exhibit, all featuring traditional beadwork with contemporary designs. On several punching bags, Jeffery incorporates the lyrics of his favorite songs into his beadwork such as ‘If I Ruled the World’ by Nas and Lauryn Hill as well as ‘I Put a Spell On You’ by Nina Simone. In addition to lyrics and beadwork, Jeffrey also included various elements of ceremonial regalia like jingles, sinew and fringe.

“The punching bag was a lifesaver for me in the sense that it was able to, as a format and materials, encompass the narrative for the first time. This idea of adornment and regalia defused the violence of a punching bag. Where it coincided is that these traditional people were wearing garments that they made, that identified them as different from the mainstream. They felt very proud, they carried their history with them and they had happiness and sadness. There was something about it that I thought was different from fashion, it is a garment that really signifies your identity and it’s a garment that indicates that you are working and moving through the world differently. It also commanded respect. Ultimately this all melded together into the bags. Once the bags started, I started looking at all sorts of different tribal aesthetics. The powwow is an intertribal event. It’s an event where the dancers, although they are relative to tradition, they are encouraged to innovate, they are encouraged to individuate themselves and there are lots of different modern innovations that happen.”

The lyrics and wordplay aren’t limited to the punching bags. In fact, Jeffery repurposed a number of traditional wool blankets into contemporary art that hang on the wall of the museum and garner a lot of attention from local art enthusiasts. Memorable lines from ‘Time (Clock of the Heart)’ by the Culture Club, ‘Fight the Power’ by Public Enemy as well as a quote by writer James A. Baldwin are spelled out in glass beads on the blankets. SAM also displayed a number of Jeffrey’s geometrical paintings which he constructed on rawhide as well as sculpted figurines that don traditional regalia, such as jingle dresses and shawls.

The exhibit ends in a room with rainbow curtains covered with bold letters that read ‘Don’t Make Me Over’ and ‘Accept Me for What I Am’. Projected on the wall is a video presentation by Jeffrey in which he is dressed in customized ceremonial garb and performing spoken word and song on a traditional hand drum. 

Although, the Like A Hammer exhibit displays artwork that explores the identity of Jeffery Gibson as a proud queer Indigenous creative, his intention behind his work is the hope that others can identify with the art, whether through triumph or struggle, and find a sense of community as well as inspire the next generations to come to simply be themselves. 

“Indigenous history and crafts provides this incredible infinite use of materials and content that I really feel privileged to have access to. When I decided to start making again, I was determined to make what I wanted to see. I started to use the word maker because it allowed me to go into everything from garments, to video, to sculptures; embrace textiles, and adornment and the decorative without feeling the boundary of what art is perceived to be. I look for words that I imagine a viewer can actually place themselves in. I move forward as an artist on the trust that we all share a similar experience. Ultimately everyone is at an intersection of multiple cultures, times, histories. The world is shifting and changing and if you’re engaged in the world, you are also shifting and changing.”  

Like A Hammer is a must-see-in-person exhibit and is currently on display until May 12. For tickets and more info, please contact the Seattle Art Museum at (206) 625-8900 or visit www.SeattleArtMuseum.org. 

At Peace With Many Tribes, Jeffrey Gibson Mixes American Indian Forms and the Abstract

Peter MauneyJeffrey Gibson in his studio in Hudson, N.Y., with his dog, Stein-Olaf.

Peter Mauney
Jeffrey Gibson in his studio in Hudson, N.Y., with his dog, Stein-Olaf.

By Carol Kino, The New York Times

HUDSON, N.Y. — One sunny afternoon early this month Jeffrey Gibson paced around his studio, trying to keep track of which of his artworks was going where.

Luminous geometric abstractions, meticulously painted on deer hide, that hung in one room were about to be picked up for an art fair. In another sat Mr. Gibson’s outsize rendition of a parfleche trunk, a traditional American Indian rawhide carrying case, covered with Malevich-like shapes, which would be shipped to New York for a solo exhibition at the National Academy Museum. Two Delaunay-esque abstractions made with acrylic on unstretched elk hides had already been sent to a museum in Ottawa, but the air was still suffused with the incense-like fragrance of the smoke used to color the skins.

“If you’d told me five years ago that this was where my work was going to lead,” said Mr. Gibson, gesturing to other pieces, including two beaded punching bags and a cluster of painted drums, “I never would have believed it.” Now 41, he is a member of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians and half-Cherokee. But for years, he said, he resisted the impulse to quote traditional Indian art, just as he had rejected the pressure he’d felt in art school to make work that reflected his so-called identity.

“The way we describe identity here is so reductive,” Mr. Gibson said. “It never bleeds into seeing you as a more multifaceted person.” But now “I’m finally at the point where I can feel comfortable being your introduction” to American Indian culture, he added. “It’s just a huge acceptance of self.”

Judging from Mr. Gibson’s growing number of exhibitions, self-acceptance has done his work a lot of good. In addition to the National Academy exhibition, “Said the Pigeon to the Squirrel,” which opens Thursday and runs through Sept. 8, his pieces can be seen in four other places.

“Love Song,” Mr. Gibson’s first solo museum show, opened this month at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, with 20 silk-screened paintings, a video and two sculptures, one of which strings together seven painted drums. The smoked elk hide paintings are now on view in “Sakahàn,” a huge group exhibition of international indigenous art that opened last Friday at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. And an installation of shield-shaped wall hangings, made from painted hides and tepee poles, is at the Cornell Fine Arts Museum at Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla.

Mr. Gibson also has work in a group exhibition at the Wilmer Jennings Gallery at Kenkeleba, a longtime East Village multicultural showcase through June 2. Called “The Old Becomes the New,” it explores the relationship between New York’s contemporary American Indian artists and postwar abstractionists like Robert Rauschenberg and Leon Polk Smith who were influenced by traditional Indian art. Mr. Gibson’s contribution is two cinder blocks wrapped in rawhide and painted with superimposed rectangles of color, creating a surprisingly harmonious mash-up of Josef Albers and Donald Judd with the ceremonial bundle.

The work’s hybrid nature has given curators different aspects to appreciate. Kathleen Ash-Milby, an associate curator at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Lower Manhattan, said she loved Mr. Gibson’s use of color and his adventurousness with materials, and that he has “been able to be successful in the mainstream and continue his association with Native art and artists.” (Ms. Ash-Milby gave Mr. Gibson his first New York solo show, in 2005 at the American Indian Community House.)

Marshall N. Price, curator of the National Academy show, said he was drawn by Mr. Gibson’s drive to explore “both the problematic legacies of his own heritage and the problematic legacy of modernism” through the lens of geometric abstraction. (Which, he noted, “has a long tradition in Native American art history as well.”)

And for Jenelle Porter, the Institute of Contemporary Art curator who organized the Boston show, it’s Mr. Gibson’s ability to “foreground his background,” as she put it, in a striking and accessible way. Ms. Porter discovered his work early last year, in a solo two-gallery exhibition organized by the downtown nonprofit space Participant Inc.

“People were raving about the show,” she said. “So I went over there and I was absolutely floored.”

The work was “visually compelling, and not didactic,” she added. And because “he’s painting on hide, painting on drums, you have to talk about where it comes from.”

Mr. Gibson only recently figured out how to start that conversation. Because his father worked for the Defense Department, he was raised in South Korea, Germany and different cities in the United States, so “acclimating was normal to me,” he said. And one of the most persistent messages he heard growing up was “never to identify as a minority,” he added.

At the same time, because much of his extended family lives near reservations in Oklahoma and Mississippi, Mr. Gibson also grew up going to powwows and Indian festivals. He even briefly considered studying traditional Indian art, but instead opted to major in studio art at a community college near his parents’ house outside Washington. In 1992, he landed at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago.

There, Mr. Gibson, who had just come out as gay, often felt pressured to examine just one aspect of his life — his Indian heritage, with its implicit cultural sense of victimhood — when what he really yearned to do was to paint like Matisse or Warhol. At the same time, he was learning about that heritage in a new way as a research assistant at the Field Museum aiding its compliance with the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

As he watched the Indian tribal elders who frequently visited to examine the drums, parfleche containers, headdresses and the like in the Field’s collection, Mr. Gibson was struck by their radically different responses. Some groups “would break down in tears,” he said. “Or there would be huge arguments.”

He came to see traditional art then “as a very powerful form of resistance” and to better “understand its relationship to contemporary life.” And nothing else he’d encountered “felt as complete and fully formed as the objects themselves,” he said. “It certainly made it difficult for me to go into the studio and paint.”

Yet paint Mr. Gibson did — mostly expressionistic landscapes filled with Disney characters, like Pocahontas, and decorated with sequins and glitter. His work continued in a similar vein while he was earning his M.F.A. at the Royal College of Art in London. Although the Mississippi Band paid for his education, the experience gave him a welcome break from grappling with concerns about identity, he said, and a chance “to just look at art and think about the formal qualities of making an artwork.” (Along the way, he also met his husband, the Norwegian sculptor Rune Olsen.)

After returning to the United States in 1999, this time to New York and New Jersey, Mr. Gibson began painting fantastical pastoral scenes, embellishing their surfaces with crystal beads and bubbles of pigmented silicone, recalling 1970s Pattern and Decoration art. Those led to his first solo show with Ms. Ash-Milby in 2005, and his inclusion in the 2007 group show “Off the Map: Landscape in the Native Imagination” at the National Museum of the American Indian, as well as other group shows.

At the same time, Mr. Gibson was making sculptures with mannequins and African masks. While struggling to understand Minimalism, he also began to see the connection between Modernist geometric abstraction and the designs on the objects that had transfixed him in the Field’s collection.

His 2012 show with Participant, “One Becomes the Other,” proved to be a turning point. In it, he collaborated with traditional Indian artists to create works like the string of painted drums, or a deer hide quiver that held an arrow made from a pink fluorescent bulb. And once he set brush to rawhide, Mr. Gibson said, he was hooked. As well as being “an amazing surface to work on,” he said, “its relationship to parchment intrigued me.”

Its use also “positions the viewer to look through the lens that I’d been working so hard to illustrate.”

But the underlying change, Mr. Gibson added, came from his decision to shed the notion of being a member of a minority group. Suddenly all art, European, American and Indian alike, became merely “individual points on this periphery around me,” he said. “Once I thought of myself as the center, the world opened up.”

At Peace With Many Tribes

Jeffrey Gibson in his studio in Hudson, N.Y., with his dog, Stein-Olaf.Peter Mauney

Jeffrey Gibson in his studio in Hudson, N.Y., with his dog, Stein-Olaf.
Peter Mauney

 

 
By CAROL KINO The New York Times
Published: May 15, 2013

 

HUDSON, N.Y. — One sunny afternoon early this month Jeffrey Gibson paced around his studio, trying to keep track of which of his artworks was going where.

Luminous geometric abstractions, meticulously painted on deer hide, that hung in one room were about to be picked up for an art fair. In another sat Mr. Gibson’s outsize rendition of a parfleche trunk, a traditional American Indian rawhide carrying case, covered with Malevich-like shapes, which would be shipped to New York for a solo exhibition at the National Academy Museum. Two Delaunay-esque abstractions made with acrylic on unstretched elk hides had already been sent to a museum in Ottawa, but the air was still suffused with the incense-like fragrance of the smoke used to color the skins.

“If you’d told me five years ago that this was where my work was going to lead,” said Mr. Gibson, gesturing to other pieces, including two beaded punching bags and a cluster of painted drums, “I never would have believed it.” Now 41, he is a member of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians and half-Cherokee. But for years, he said, he resisted the impulse to quote traditional Indian art, just as he had rejected the pressure he’d felt in art school to make work that reflected his so-called identity.

“The way we describe identity here is so reductive,” Mr. Gibson said. “It never bleeds into seeing you as a more multifaceted person.” But now “I’m finally at the point where I can feel comfortable being your introduction” to American Indian culture, he added. “It’s just a huge acceptance of self.”

Judging from Mr. Gibson’s growing number of exhibitions, self-acceptance has done his work a lot of good. In addition to the National Academy exhibition, “Said the Pigeon to the Squirrel,” which opens Thursday and runs through Sept. 8, his pieces can be seen in four other places.

“Love Song,” Mr. Gibson’s first solo museum show, opened this month at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, with 20 silk-screened paintings, a video and two sculptures, one of which strings together seven painted drums. The smoked elk hide paintings are now on view in “Sakahàn,” a huge group exhibition of international indigenous art that opened last Friday at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. And an installation of shield-shaped wall hangings, made from painted hides and tepee poles, is at the Cornell Fine Arts Museum at Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla.

Mr. Gibson also has work in a group exhibition at the Wilmer Jennings Gallery at Kenkeleba, a longtime East Village multicultural showcase through June 2. Called “The Old Becomes the New,” it explores the relationship between New York’s contemporary American Indian artists and postwar abstractionists like Robert Rauschenberg and Leon Polk Smith who were influenced by traditional Indian art. Mr. Gibson’s contribution is two cinder blocks wrapped in rawhide and painted with superimposed rectangles of color, creating a surprisingly harmonious mash-up of Josef Albers and Donald Judd with the ceremonial bundle.

The work’s hybrid nature has given curators different aspects to appreciate. Kathleen Ash-Milby, an associate curator at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Lower Manhattan, said she loved Mr. Gibson’s use of color and his adventurousness with materials, and that he has “been able to be successful in the mainstream and continue his association with Native art and artists.” (Ms. Ash-Milby gave Mr. Gibson his first New York solo show, in 2005 at the American Indian Community House.)

Marshall N. Price, curator of the National Academy show, said he was drawn by Mr. Gibson’s drive to explore “both the problematic legacies of his own heritage and the problematic legacy of modernism” through the lens of geometric abstraction. (Which, he noted, “has a long tradition in Native American art history as well.”)

And for Jenelle Porter, the Institute of Contemporary Art curator who organized the Boston show, it’s Mr. Gibson’s ability to “foreground his background,” as she put it, in a striking and accessible way. Ms. Porter discovered his work early last year, in a solo two-gallery exhibition organized by the downtown nonprofit space Participant Inc.

“People were raving about the show,” she said. “So I went over there and I was absolutely floored.”

The work was “visually compelling, and not didactic,” she added. And because “he’s painting on hide, painting on drums, you have to talk about where it comes from.”

Mr. Gibson only recently figured out how to start that conversation. Because his father worked for the Defense Department, he was raised in South Korea, Germany and different cities in the United States, so “acclimating was normal to me,” he said. And one of the most persistent messages he heard growing up was “never to identify as a minority,” he added.

At the same time, because much of his extended family lives near reservations in Oklahoma and Mississippi, Mr. Gibson also grew up going to powwows and Indian festivals. He even briefly considered studying traditional Indian art, but instead opted to major in studio art at a community college near his parents’ house outside Washington. In 1992, he landed at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago.

There, Mr. Gibson, who had just come out as gay, often felt pressured to examine just one aspect of his life — his Indian heritage, with its implicit cultural sense of victimhood — when what he really yearned to do was to paint like Matisse or Warhol. At the same time, he was learning about that heritage in a new way as a research assistant at the Field Museum aiding its compliance with the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

As he watched the Indian tribal elders who frequently visited to examine the drums, parfleche containers, headdresses and the like in the Field’s collection, Mr. Gibson was struck by their radically different responses. Some groups “would break down in tears,” he said. “Or there would be huge arguments.”

 

read and see more photos here.