Seattle couldn’t have opened a Jeffrey Gibson exhibition at a better time. Earlier this week the Whitney Museum announced the list of artists set to participate in its 2019 Whitney Biennial, and Gibson has made the cut. A Choctaw-Cherokee painter and sculptor based in Hudson, New York, Gibson is best known for his complexly beaded Everlast punching bags and wall tapestries that pull traditional indigenous craft into the realm of contemporary art. On the heels of the Whitney announcement, Seattle Art Museum is opening a retrospective of Gibson’s work this Friday (the exhibition will run through May 12).
Jeffrey Gibson: Like a Hammer is a survey of Gibson’s work from 2011 to the present (the newest piece is 2018’s Don’t Make Me Over, which will only appear at the Seattle stop), and it features more than 65 works including paintings, sculptures, wall hangings, and video. It’s the kind of show that takes more than one visit—the vibrant colors, intricate details, and amalgam of mediums (don’t even get me started on the pop culture, music, and literary references) is borderline overwhelming, but in a way that makes you want to dig deeper. After a press tour of the exhibition led by Gibson, GRAY had the opportunity to chat with him about identity, his favorite medium, and what he hopes to communicate through this show.
Much of your work takes traditional craft and puts it in a contemporary context. How do you know how to strike an effective balance between the traditional and the contemporary? What makes that crossover successful?
Honestly, I always try to make something that I would be excited to see if I hadn’t made it. And that’s a really high bar. I think every artist knows when they’re taking a risk, and it doesn’t have to be a make-or-break one, but there needs to be some sort of excitement over what works or not. I like pushing my work to that edge.
An example: A year ago I showed four garments at the Armory Show in New York. I was scared that people would think I was just making dresses, but they have really embraced them as sculptures. That allows me to take more of a risk in designing and making the piece because they don’t actually have to be wearable.
Is knowledge of the historical or cultural context of your work necessary?
To understand the work, yes you do need to be aware of that specific context, but anyone can enjoy it and draw meaning from it without that awareness. There’s a lot in the work, and it can be approached from a design or fashion or graphic perspective. But when a viewer finds out about the history behind the pieces then the work becomes that much richer. I hope that anyone viewing it would become inspired to want to learn more.
Last year the Seattle Art Museum mounted an exhibition that revisited the photographs of Edward S. Curtis, displaying them along with contemporary works by three indigenous artists. Do you feel that large art institutions are making effective strides to recast not only how we look at Native American identities, but also at Native American art itself?
I think the question for everyone now is “will this continue?” What we’re experiencing is very reminiscent of the period of identity politics in the early ’90s, but I think that the difference now is that there are indigenous writers and curators and institutions that didn’t exist even 10 or 15 years ago. I would like to think that there are enough voices active in the contemporary art field now that we will only see an increase in representation. I feel a responsibility to keep the conversations that I’m a part of—whether it’s with curators or collaborating with other Native artists—going.
The recently announced list of artists for the Whitney Biennial includes five or six indigenous artists, which is up from two or three last year. That sends a big message to both artists and the art world. From paint to beads to animal skin, you work in a large range of mediums.
Do you feel a connection stronger connection to any one medium?
I would say fabric; specifically a woven fabric because it’s just so malleable. People often forget that when you look at a painting you’re looking at a textile, and I have a background in painting. I love that fabric can be ripped and painted and burned and dyed and cut.
What do you hope people take away from this show?
I really hope that as many indigenous people as possible come to see the show and feel themselves to some degree represented and empowered by it.
Jeffrey Gibson: Like a Hammer runs February 28-May 12, 2019 at Seattle Art Museum.