For nearly a century, the Native Arts department of the Denver Art Museum has played a pivotal role in recasting the art of the American Indian. Starting in the 1920s with visionary curator Frederic Douglas, the DAM regarded the pottery, weavings, metal works and other objects made by Native Americans as fine art prized for its aesthetic qualities rather than simply artifacts that illuminated the anthropology of the tribes, as was then common. Another breakthrough came a couple of decades ago, when current chief curator Nancy Blomberg began highlighting contemporary art made by Native artists outside of their tribal traditions.
The sensibilities of both Douglas and Blomberg set the stage for this summer’s Jeffrey Gibson: Like a Hammer, an over-the-top display of the artist’s remarkably ambitious output over the past several years. His paintings, installations, wall hangings and sculptures all have a pronounced Native American character, but at the same time are clearly part of the broader international contemporary art world. They’re also relentlessly eye-dazzling.
Jeffrey Gibson, who is both Cherokee and Mississippi Band Choctaw, was born in Colorado Springs and raised not on a reservation, but at military bases around the world; his father was in the Army and later worked for the Department of Defense. Determined to be an artist, Gibson earned his BFA at the Art Institute of Chicago and his graduate degree at the Royal College of Art in London. He now lives and works in Hudson, New York.
The spectacular Like a Hammer was put together by John Lukavic, curator of Native Arts, who was also responsible for the exhibition’s elegant design. When I walked through the show with Lukavic, he revealed an astounding depth of knowledge of traditional American Indian art, pointing out the varied tribal sources for one element after another. His expertise in contemporary art is also impressive.
The show begins just outside the Gallagher Family Gallery on the Hamilton Building’s ground level, where you first hear the soundtrack of a dance-club mix that plays throughout the show. The songs, which include tunes by Jimmy Somerville, Frankie Valli and Grace Jones, create the upbeat mood that the works suggest at first blush, though on closer look we see that they also deal with colonialism, trade, gender roles, identity and cultural isolation, among other topical issues. When I heard the first strains of Somerville falsetto-ing his way through “Mighty Real,” however, I realized that another important aspect of Gibson’s work is the gay sensibility. His work is at the intersection of Native American roots, the history of contemporary art, and his gay male identity.
That intersection has sometimes been a collision. Gibson began his career in the late 1990s, and about a decade later, he suffered a crisis of conscience. Feeling misunderstood and that his attempts to develop a visual language to express his actual experience had failed, he destroyed much of his earlier work — in some cases washing the canvases — and considered giving up art completely. Instead, in 2011 he began to create the most significant pieces he’d ever done, an effort that continues today. These are the works in Like a Hammer.
Some of these Gibsons incorporate parts of the destroyed paintings, notably the monumental wall hanging “Late Fragment (after Carver),” whose title refers to a poem about loving oneself by the late Raymond Carver.
Alongside chunks of cut-up old paintings, Gibson has added new painted areas, as well as glass beads, agates and other materials. The painted areas have constructivist patterns reminiscent of the late-twentieth-century work of Sean Scully or Frank Stella, but Gibson’s arrangements also reflect Native American patterns that are a century older. The lost paintings inspired completely new works, too, and “Someone Great Is Gone” shows a morphing of the two sensibilities: Triangulated shapes done in bold colors are reminiscent of those in the wall piece, but for the painting’s ground, he’s used a stretched elk skin. It’s very cool.
Gibson’s claim to fame is arguably his adorned punching bags, a series he began in 2013. He starts with Everlast punching bags that he covers, save for their labels, in beads, cloth, bangles, jingles, studs and fringe; some also incorporate pieces of the recycled paintings. For Gibson, Lukavic explained, the punching bag is a symbol of machismo or even toxic masculinity — and come to think of it, these do sort of look like flaccid penises. But Gibson undercuts that by introducing feminine decorations, with many of the accents and the bold colors coming out of the powwow aesthetic, inspired by the dresses worn by women dancers.
Gibson’s punching bags led to his wall hangings, which typically feature text, often taken from song lyrics, including some from the tunes playing in the background of the show. Closely associated with the punching bags are Gibson’s figures, which stand on bases made of raw lumber on top of simple tables, also done in raw wood. The figures suggest dolls or effigies, and their festive costumes are covered in decorative notions like those on the dresses of the powwow dancers. Gibson bases the figural form on historic sources, but also throws in a dash of recent pop culture with their outfits and even the figures themselves, modeling them on the New York club kids of the ’90s. The show’s title comes from one of these.
After creating works that fill the DAM galleries with gaudy neo-pop excesses — and I mean that in the best way possible — over the past couple of years, Gibson returned to painting geometric abstractions of unsurpassable elegance, essentially where he left off before starting on the powwow pieces. These complete the show. The compositions are puzzles of hard-edged shapes carried out in limited palettes of rich, saturated colors. The pieces are hung so that they partly surround an older sculpture of a skid made of repurposed tipi poles with a box on top that has been covered by one of the earlier abstractions, which sport the kind of geometric elements seen in the newest works hanging nearby.
Like many great stories, Gibson’s has a surprise ending…and the result is a stunning show.