Mash-Ups Star in a Homage to American Indians

Jeffrey Gibson Injects Visual Pizazz Into Found Objects

“Freedom” uses tepee poles, rawhide lacing, artificial sinew, buffalo hide, acrylic paint, wool, glass and plastic beads, sterling silver and turquoise.
“Freedom” uses tepee poles, rawhide lacing, artificial sinew, buffalo hide, acrylic paint, wool, glass and plastic beads, sterling silver and turquoise.

Karen Rosenberg, The New York Times

“Jeffrey Gibson: Said the Pigeon to the Squirrel” is the type of show that’s perking up the once-sleepy National Academy Museum. It inaugurates a new biennial program of solos by emerging artists, expanding on smaller efforts to highlight young, living artists (Phoebe Washburn’s spiraling nest of scrapwood in the rotunda, for example).

There are a few glitches with this one, however. One is that the Academy hasn’t yet figured out how to handle ultracontemporary art with the ease of a MoMA or a Whitney. (This show looks a lot like a commercial gallery exhibition, but its texts seem to be pitched at graduate students.) Another is that Mr. Gibson’s art, though promising, falls short of its potential.

Mr. Gibson, an abstract painter who often works on animal hides in homage to his American Indian heritage (he is a member of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians and is half Cherokee), is certainly an interesting choice. His work points to worlds of intensive, disciplined art making beyond the walls of this Academy, or any academy.

It also embodies two sweeping trends in contemporary art: feverishly bright geometric abstraction and the creative reuse of found objects. The animal hides are stretched over antique mirrors and ironing boards, and even wrapped around fluorescent light tubes in an obvious nod to Dan Flavin.

In his catalog essay the show’s curator, Marshall N. Price, describes Mr. Gibson’s work as a “mash-up” or “remix.” The show’s playful title, he says, imagines a “dialogue between two urban animals as characters in a contemporary creation myth.”

Nonetheless, the paintings and their supports don’t always interact in any way that generates sparks. “Freedom,” for example, simply carries forward the indigenous conventions of the parfleche and the travois. (The parfleche is a carrying case made of animal hide, often adorned with geometric designs; the travois is a frame of long tepee poles, used to transport the parfleche on horseback.) Mr. Gibson’s version is exuberantly decorative, with beaded fringe and a weblike pattern of painted triangles, but then so are objects made and shown in a more traditional tribal context. A show last year at the gallery Participant made this point neatly with collaborations between Mr. Gibson and more specialized American Indian artists.

Other works — especially the ones made with antique mirrors as supports — have plenty of visual pizazz but are weak conceptually. The painting-as-mirror conceit feels a bit stale, and they rely too heavily on the thrift shop eclecticism of the mirrors, with their different carved and cast frames, to offset a formulaic painterly vocabulary.

Also problematic are the fluorescent light sculptures, which cover the bulbs with colored gel and encase them in acrylic tubes that are then wrapped in deer hide. On a material level, Mr. Gibson is onto something here: the hide softens the light, making the sculptures look less like Flavins and more like ravers’ glowsticks. But they still read as pastiches, especially if you aren’t aware of Mr. Gibson’s interest in rave culture.

He is certainly capable of variety and invention, as his drawings series “Infinite Sampling” suggests; its 55 configurations of pencil, watercolor, thread and tape have a kind of shamanic flow and intensity.

Something of that magic makes its way into the “shield paintings,” executed on hide stretched over ironing boards, which are by far the best of the painted works here. Their sharply angular compositions allude to European early Modernist movements, like Orphism and Rayism, but the curved contours of the boards foster all sorts of other associations: the surf-inspired art of 1960s Los Angeles, or the early shaped canvases of Frank Stella, or, as the titles suggest, heraldic armor.

Also intriguing are the punching bags bedecked with sequins, beads and tin shingles, wrapped in pieces of “repurposed” paintings. They have the festive, performative appeal of Nick Cave’s “Soundsuits”; one, “She Walks Lightly,” is placed close to an air-conditioning vent so that its fringed skirt sways ever so gently.

In the catalog Mr. Gibson recalls his inspiration for the piece: a performance by the dancer Norma Red Cloud. “She moved gracefully,” he writes, “so that the jingles all moved in unison and made the most beautiful sound: even, continuous, confident.”

The sculpture conveys that powerful impression and more, and suggests that dance — or movement of some kind — may be the next step for this talented artist who hasn’t quite hit his stride.

“Jeffrey Gibson: Said the Pigeon to the Squirrel” runs through Sept. 8 at the National Academy Museum, 1083 Fifth Avenue, at 89th Street; (212)369-4880,


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.”


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