Native American artist has major Denver exhibit

Jeffrey Gibson, born in Colorado, lives and works in New York


“Like a Hammer” at the Denver Art Museum is the first exhibition in a major museum for artist Jeffrey Gibson (Mississipi Band Choctaw/Cherokee). The exhibition just opened on the first floor of the Hamilton Building and runs through Aug. 12, with a mix of traditional design and contemporary presence.

Gibson was born in Colorado Springs in 1972, lives and works in New York, teaches at Bard College and incorporates his heritage into distinctive, contemporary works, including abstract sculptures, paintings and prints. Materials include rawhide, beads, sterling silver, wool blankets, metal cones, beads, fringe and sinew, as well as paint.

Introductory comments at a press preview told of Gibson’s extreme unhappiness with his art in the middle of the first decade of this century, which led him to razor paintings from their frame, head for a coin laundry and wash them in hot water and detergent. Fragments of those paintings appear in textile works in “Like a Hammer,” looking pale and stressed, compared to the vibrant newer coloration exhibited today. Washing away failure …

Music has been very important for Gibson. Lines from popular songs are incorporated into his works and background music plays from a song list he provided. “It adds an extra sensory dimension,” curator John Lukavic commented. “Gibson seamlessly blends indigenous aesthetics and contemporary methods … His work offers or visitors an experience that doesn’t exist elsewhere and challenges the generic categories of art, presenting a new way of conceptualizing what people see and experience.”

“I Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You” commands a long look: a female figure in dance attire, with a ceramic head and legs made from tipi poles. Haunting, it and other similar figures “speak of effigy pots from Gibson’s Choctaw-Cherokee background,” Lukavic commented. “He draws from the past, creates futuristic work …” Gibson on several occasions revealed his displeasure with the art world’s tendency to consider Native American art as craft or decorative arts.

“Gibson did not feel he had a way to express himself visually in ways that people could connect with,” said Lukavic. “Gibson blends indigenous aesthetics and contemporary methods … His work offers our visitors an experience that doesn’t exist elsewhere and challenges the generic categories of art, presenting a new way of conceptualizing what people see and experience.”

Gibson pointed out greenish patches of those earlier paintings in several new pieces, adding that this was the first time he’d seen his work together.

Gibson was an artist-in-residence at DAM in 2014 and was allowed access to the archives to research, assisting with a “challenge for artists who are not central.” It offered new connections for Gibson. (A video made during his residency is shown in the last gallery in this exhibit. Allow time to watch it.)

“I realized that art history is not inclusive of native artists,” he said as he talked about his punching-bag series — some covered with Osage-type beadwork and named “Everlast.” The series resulted from a recommendation that he work out frustration by boxing. The image suggests white power, violence — and peacefulness.

Another work, “I Am Woman,” refers to huge numbers of missing native, indigenous women.

“My use of color is free, exuberant … a choice of rawhide versus beaded offers a lens of indigenous perspective that changes how we read them … These are not specific to any particular tribe,” Gibson said.

The figures are “an artifact of the future,” Lukavic added, like Kachina figures or those guarding the tombs in the past.

Gibson also pointed out a large, predominantly black and white, rectangular piece that reads: “American History is longer — larger — more beautiful …” quoting the black, openly gay American writer James Baldwin, who chose to live in Europe — and has been an influence. “There is a widespread message that voices are not always heard.”

With the appearance of a large work in the DAM collection — a travois used to carry goods — Lukavic said, “it’s closer to (Claus) Oldenburg than traditional indigenous art.”

In the fourth portion of the exhibit, the video shows people responding to items in the museum’s collection rooms … a Navajo man talked to a wooden Navajo weaving comb, as though to his grandmother: “I miss you grandma … are the sheep still there? I cherish the memory of you.”

In the Kiowa language, objects were asked their permission to use them in the exhibit … Patterns in dancer’s costumes are referenced in Gibson’s works. For example, a woman in a jingle dress steps off an elevator and dances down the hall …

“I think my work offers a counter-vision to other things happening in the world,” Gibson said.


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