Artist in Profile
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In Time We Will All Be Stars
'The Body Electric' Transforms The Frist
Imagine yourself an accidental tourist wandering a not-so-crowded Times Square. It’s March 2020, and it’s late at night.
Suddenly, on several of the giant flashing screens high above you, an indigenous woman appears. She has a feather in her hair and wears a traditional jingle dress. Her face is calm, benevolent as it looks down into the shadowy city streets. She begins to dance, the silver, cone-shaped jingles swaying in rhythm with her movements.
As she dances to the trance-hip-hop-inflected beat of “Sisters” by Halluci Nation (formerly A Tribe Called Red), her image multiplies out over some 60 huge screens, then multiplies again and again until there are 180 identical dancers moving in powwow-step all around Times Square. The colors and motion shape themselves into pulsing geometrics, then resolve as the song concludes, and they contract again into one single dancer.
It’s beautiful — trippy and fun and poignant in its transience. Those fortunate enough to witness it have Jeffrey Gibson (the artist) and Sarah Ortegon (the Eastern Shoshone/Northern Arapaho dancer) to thank, along with Times Square Arts’ Midnight Moments series, which facilitated the work.
If you didn’t happen to catch that one-night-only performance of “She Never Dances Alone,” you’re still in luck: A museum-scale version of the piece, presented on nine screens, can be seen at Frist Art Museum starting February 3, along with a substantial collection of other recent works by the prolific Gibson. “The Body Electric,” an exhibition originally curated and exhibited at SITE Santa Fe, features recent paintings, three-dimensional works, and video installations, along with some pieces from earlier in the artist’s career. It will be The Frist’s first-ever solo exhibition by an indigenous artist.
“I think Jeffrey’s work will resonate with the community,” says Frist curator Katie Delmez. “It’s so accessible on the one hand, and everyone is drawn to the color and the texture, the materials and the audio-video component. It’s so inviting and alluring. And yet, he’s also addressing important social and political issues.”
Gibson’s work is informed by his Choctaw-Cherokee heritage, and by his identity as a queer artist of color. He draws on traditional indigenous materials in his creative practice, using those materials in surprising ways.
In some pieces, the artist chooses silk fringe and beadwork as his primary sculptural materials, as opposed to the more typical decorative uses of those materials. “Red Moon,” “Desert Sky,” and “Red Sunset” are large sculptures made from the brightly colored silk fringe you’d expect to see adorning the edges of dancers’ regalia. The threads form bright cubes of color — shimmering, haunting, monolithic hangings in a darkened gallery space. “Sentinel” also makes fringe a central element, hanging as it does around and below two beaded circular pendants, together forming a humorous mask or red ghost face.
In his “Sweet Bitter Love” series, Gibson transforms portraits of indigenous people originally made by Elbridge Ayer Burbank, a White, turn-of-the-20th-century painter famous for such portraits. Gibson takes copies of Burbank’s portraits and over-paints them with geometric designs and poured paint, incorporating mixed-media elements in a frank yet beautiful critique of White appropriation and fetishization of the indigenous image.
The list of the materials used to create “Boneta, Comanche” includes “cotton rag paper, archival pigment print, acrylic paint, glass beads, nylon thread, vintage beaded belt, vintage beaded barrettes, and vintage ring toss game from Japan,” according to the gallery guide. With these materials, the artist renders Burbank’s original image less recognizable as a portrait, transforming it into an original mixed media collage.
Similarly, in Gibson’s hands, Burbank’s staid, European-style profile portrait of Hopi woman Pahl Lee is multiplied and reframed in yellow, orange, green, and red geometrics, then crowned with a multi-pointed star from which Gibson hangs a small, rose-patterned beaded purse. He turns the portrait into a piece of art uniquely indigenous and abstract, something that feels alive and pulsing, in contrast to the formal, captured image by Burbank.
The exhibition showcases Gibson’s love of geometric patterns, in beadwork, painting, and multi-media pieces. “The Land is Speaking Are You Listening,” a hand-painted abstract mural, evokes the Southwest’s deserts as well as the Northeast, where Gibson lives, in its colors and visual rhythms. Its message, written in op-art lettering patterns suggestive of beadwork and quilting, challenges the viewer to listen to the world around them and attend to it — to go beyond their gallery gazing.
“Jeffrey’s practice really suggests a re-examination of art history and the origins of geometric abstraction, and not only geometric abstraction, but design, form, color, materiality,” observes SITE Santa Fe curator Brandee Caoba, who worked closely with Gibson on the original show.
“It really challenges traditional understanding of art and art history because it’s elevating the vision and voice of a queer indigenous artist, who, in my opinion, is one of the foremost artists of our time. Geometric abstraction and design are deeply rooted in indigenous culture, and I think that Jeffrey is using these origins, but also expanding on them and bringing them to the forefront of contemporary art history,” Caoba says.
Weaving in wordplay
Gibson’s incorporation of words and phrases is another signature aspect of his work. Bits of song lyrics and poetry, original epigrams suggestive of Zen koans, even language from newspaper headlines and historical documents are integral to many of Gibson’s pieces.
The show’s title, “The Body Electric,” originates in lyrics from the musical Fame, which, in turn were inspired by a section of Walt Whitman’s celebrated poetry collection Leaves of Grass. Works such as “The Future is Present,” “If I Ruled the World,” “Know You’re Magick, Baby,” “I Am A Rainbow Too,” and “She Knows Other Worlds” incorporate those title phrases, inviting viewers to contemplate the message alongside the colors, textures, patterns, and lettering design.
“His use of language and interest in language is another way in,” Caoba says. “The beauty of Jeffrey’s work is that it’s, well, beautiful, and so it’s very seductive visually. People can engage with it just on that level, if they want to. They can come into the show and love the pieces just for the craftmanship, the beauty and the skill, and the materials. And they could also dive deeper if they want to, because his work is touching on so many different topics.
“This show is about appreciation of the earth and the universe and one-ness. It’s about all these threads of kinship with the natural world, the earth’s animacy, recognizing as your relatives not only human beings, but all living creatures in the world. That’s the power of his vision. It’s also a celebration of nonconformity and the power of self-expression.
“But even if you had no interest in sociopolitical issues and just happened upon the show, you could still enjoy it,” Caoba says. “All the nuances are an added richness to what it is.”
The artist’s journeys
Gibson began making art as a kid, drawing for fun. Born in Colorado, he grew up very much a world citizen, traveling to places like Germany and Korea as his Mississippi Choctaw father and Cherokee mother moved the family from place to place for his father’s work as a U.S. Army civil engineer.
Eventually Gibson found his way to art school, earning a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and a Master of Fine Arts from the Royal College of Art in London. After living and working in Norway, San Francisco, and Brooklyn, he and his husband, Norwegian artist Rune Olsen, settled in Hudson, New York, with their children. Gibson bought an old schoolhouse in nearby Claverack, New York, which he converted into a maker space where he and a team of artists work together to realize Gibson’s designs.
His creative journey has taken some transformative turns over the decades. When he was in his 20s, he had a job at the Field Museum in Chicago, assisting tribal delegations in identifying items in the museum’s holdings they wished to reclaim for repatriation. It’s there he came upon “whimsies” — beaded novelty items made by local indigenous Haudenosaunee communities and sold during the Victorian era as souvenirs around Niagara Falls.
The whimsy makers used a traditional craft style called “basket” or “stacked” beadwork, but instead of employing traditional designs, they used ones based on Victorian fabric fashions of the day, such as paisleys and florals. The pieces were disturbing to Gibson, who saw himself represented in them. They were works made by people caught between colonial power structures and their own indigenous culture.
Later, he would make his own authentically contemporary “whimsies,” some of which are included in “The Body Electric” (the beaded bird sculptures titled “Firebelly,” “My Joy My Joy My Joy,” and “The Sun Will Be Shining”).
Inspiration VIA frustration
Early in his career, between 2008 to about 2012, Gibson struggled in his work, and even considered walking away from the art world. He was primarily an abstract painter, his canvases informed by beadwork, lacing, basketry, weaving and other traditional arts. He had not yet seen commercial success, but he had also not yet moved into making three-dimensional objects.
An often-recounted story about that period goes like this: One day, at the height of his frustration, Gibson cut all his paintings off their stretcher bars, took them to a laundromat and washed them. He was left with a pile of canvases that were covered in splotches of color, some of which he later repurposed in new works, including “Time Capsule (Pink Hole),” which is on display at the Frist.
“He had these faded abstract paintings cut into strips, and he started encasing them in hide, creating these little envelopes almost,” Caoba says. “Time capsules. And so, theoretically, if you were to acquire one of these pieces, you could open the ‘time capsule’ and you could perform the painting if you wanted to.
“I think that this piece is the tipping point for everything else you see in the show, because it was a point of growth,” she says. “It was this beautiful stepping-off point. After that, he took a different approach to practice, visiting different indigenous groups, learning different ways to use material, and that moved his practice forward in terms of what you see in ‘The Body Electric.’ ”
“Time Capsule (Pink Hole),” one of the oldest pieces in the collection, is being shown in tandem with one of the newest, a video installation titled “A Warm Darkness.” “Time Capsule (Pink Hole)” is a packet made from hide that is painted black. The bit of the canvas it contains, painted bright pink, peeks through a hole in the black hide. The video “A Warm Darkness” echoes the colors of “Time Capsule (Pink Hole).” It features a dancer in hot pink moving through spaces around a black shrouded ziggurat sculpture. (The piece, “Once You Enter My House It Becomes Our House,” was created in 2020-21 at the Socrates Sculpture Park in Queens, New York, and repurposed in its shroud for the video.)
The time capsule and the video seem to be in conversation together and, as Caobo suggests, serve to bookend the show chronologically.
The pair of works also underscore a key theme in all of Gibson’s work: transformation. As the years of his career spiral and layer into other years, his work, too, becomes increasingly layered and nuanced.
It seems fitting that the exhibition takes its title from Fame’s song lyrics:
And in time and in time
We will all be stars
I sing the body electric
I glory in the glow of rebirth
Creating my own tomorrow
When I shall embody the Earth.
"The Body Electric"
February 2 - April 20
Frist Art Museum