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Jeffrey Gibson’s “IN SUCH TIMES” opened on September 9 in Los Angeles at Roberts & Tilton. The New York-based artist is known for exploring with pattern, weaving, and beading that references his Cherokee and Choctaw background, music, literature, pop culture, and politics. Alongside his popular punching bag series, he blends painting, craft, and sculpture.
Whitewall reached out to Gibson to learn more about this new body of work, his secret hearts collection, and why he relates to the figure of the clown.
WHITEWALL: Was there a starting point for this body of work?
JEFFREY GIBSON: I have not done a solo gallery exhibition since late 2015 and was excited to show in a new space. I wanted the body of work to be concise and to try some of the ideas that had been floating around for some time. Some of those ideas include using trading post weavings as the basis for beaded tapestries. I also have collected the words used over the past couple of years and chose words that I felt worked together to describe how I have been feeling lately, as well as referencing larger events happening in the world. I also knew that I wanted to push the patterns and my use of color further than some recent works. AMAZING GRACE and TO MY NATION are the first two pieces conceived of for this exhibition.
WW: The title comes from Nelson Algren’s words in Damn Everything But The Circus, “In such times, clowns become witnesses.” What about this line resonated with you?
JG: Many cultures have clown characters that play the role of entertainers but sometimes with a clever wit that acknowledges bigger issues and may even critique them. I work with many ideas and materials that can be seen as peripheral or not powerful. I try to transform them into pieces that are powerful and have a great deal of presence. I identify with the “clown,” the one not taken seriously, the one pushed to the periphery outside of the mainstream. I often feel that people don’t realize that I am paying close attention. I like this position at times because people are less self-conscious when they don’t feel as though someone is watching them.
WW: How did the events of this spring in summer as a backdrop to making this work affect your day to day studio practice?
JG: There has been a general feeling of instability and shock at the decisions of the current administration. I never thought we would be fighting for and defending rights and privileges that are about basic equality at this time and to this degree. I know we live in an unequal world and that there is injustice around us all the time, but the current atmosphere feels unsafe and makes it difficult to think and act thoughtfully towards building a better society in the long term.
WW: Do you feel like these works have a more overt political message than past series?
JG: Yes and no, because I have always made work about relationships, mostly personal ones, but even in personal relationships there is always a power dynamic that needs to be negotiated. There are always multiple sides to any situation and that is what I have explored consistently in my work. I have always understood that these power dynamics are also at work in larger social and political contexts and have wanted viewers to see the relationship between the personal and the more broadly political. For this body of work, I chose text that I feel represents my own relationship to the larger politicized world. So, I guess the answer is yes.
WW: It looks like you explored a new kind of pattern in AMAZING GRACE and TO MY NATION. Can you talk about those works?
JG: Sure. For these two pieces, I wanted to push my use of pattern and use of text. These pieces took a long time to come together because I could only decide the next step once the previous step had been completed. It was very process oriented, much like my painting process. I also had found weavings to respond to and wanted my decisions to be guided by the compositional elements of the original weavings. I also did not want to “frame” the text but rather use the text to frame the abstract patterns.
WW: For the punching bag piece, LOVE IS THE DRUG, can you talk about gathering and using the different heart trinkets and pieces?
JG: I have secretly collected hearts for my personal collections for almost twenty years. I say secretly because I have always also seen them as extremely campy and kitsch, lacking in any serious content. Over the years, I have collected hearts that are engraved from one person to another, some during war time and some that I wondered if both people are still living. They are often worn and it seems the sentimentality increases over time with a little wear and tear. I have always collected things such as beads and charms so this was not such a departure.
I used only a few hearts from my personal collection, they are too special to part with, but purchased individual vintage hearts online that I would happily add to my collection. I also bought a number of heart charms in bulk because I realized I needed a lot of them. Then I became interested in the heart charm necklaces and brooches. I looked for hearts representative of different kinds of love, different generations, some from the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s. I wanted to push the camp factor over the top until the bag became a serious labor of love and provides a space for people to give into love.
WW: Why is the punching bag series something you continue to return to?
JG: The punching bag is an ideal metaphor for relationships and it also has a bodily presence that resonates with people. The bag can represent the victim and at the same time can represent victory and achievement over struggle—the fight. A punching bag is also often seen as gendered and full of machismo. Adorning the bag with thoughtful flamboyance counters these antiquated concepts of gender, complicates it, expands it—making space for something new.
“IN SUCH TIMES” is on view at Roberts & Tilton through October 21, 2017.