DENVER — The past sometimes acts as a trap for contemporary Native American artists. Critics, myself included, will anticipate the readers’ questions by discussing a material or pattern in terms of its ties to a tradition, preventing the artwork from taking the lead. Jeffrey Gibson brilliantly bobs and weaves through these pitfalls to assert his own creative vision in Like a Hammer at the Denver Art Museum, resulting in a new and exciting dialogue with the future of American art.
Like a Hammer is the first exhibition that exclusively focuses on Gibson’s work produced after 2011, a turning point in the artist’s career according to the show’s curator, John Lukavic. Gibson previously made paintings that were intense in color and somewhat narrative. In 2006, in a moment of frustration, he razored all his paintings from their stretchers and washed the canvases at a laundromat. “I was performing as artist,” he told me at the exhibition’s opening. He explained that moving toward mediums traditionally considered “craft” allowed a more subversive conversation that he desired.
Gibson took the washed canvases and wrapped them around his boxing bag works, as in “Both Hands” (2014), where the green stains of old pigment are interrupted by the creases and cracks of the white canvas. Their aged and worn appearance boldly contrasts with the neatly constructed rows of rose-gold jingle bells that Gibson placed at the bag’s crown and the skirt of silver ones that lie at the waist. The inclusion of the jingle bell, he says, was inspired by Iroquois “whimsies,” ornamental objects once made by native hands for a non-native market. When working at the Field Museum in Chicago, Gibson found them seemingly neglected in the museum’s storage. Jingle beads were originally made from rolled tobacco tin lids then attached to ceremonial dresses for sound and visual effect. In the exhibition catalogue, Gibson questions the purity of that material, considering if the first time a bell was fashioned to a garment, “was it celebrated? Was it criticized? Was it seen as Native?” Like the whimsies, or the jingle bell, producing a new aesthetic is a symbolic act of resistance for Gibson. Like his materials, the artwork exists between cultures.
By 2015, Gibson began to draw from poetry and popular song lyrics. “AMERICAN HISTORY (JB)” (2015) hangs on the wall like a painting, but the viewer does not look at it like a painting, instead scanning the text from top to bottom. When Gibson derails the reader by alternating between words and abstract shapes, such as in “THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN YOU + ME” (2015), it recalls Glenn Ligon’s “Untitled (I Am an Invisible Man)” (1991). Collapsing the text with the geometric forms, Gibson, like Ligon, engages in what art historian Rosalyn Deutsche called in Evictions: Art and Spatial Politics a “vehicle for interrupting the rhetoric of the image.”
Why does contemporary Native American art rarely enjoy an object-based debate? The art is always discussed as a reflection on social identity. You can understand the history of the bead trade or intertribal powwow music but it won’t get you far with Gibson because he is operating in an open structure that denies a predetermined reading. His amalgamation of materials, compositions, and influences betray the narrow profile of a “native artist.”
The first work Gibson conceived for Like a Hammer was the film “Video: one becomes the other” (2014–2018). The film is set in the Native American archives and art storage of the Denver Art Museum. We see a man speaking Kiowa pick up a hand drum from a shelf and begin to play. A woman in a long, white dress with colorful patterns enters the halls, dancing in time. There is an improvised moment where an art handler asks to participate in the filming. He opens a drawer, and finds a Navajo weaving comb like his grandmother’s. He talks to the comb as if it is his deceased grandmother, bringing himself to tears. The sleeping objects are understood as living.
When asked about the indigenous artifacts and intertribal references he makes in the film, Gibson responded, “Isn’t that what we do in contemporary art? We take from lots of spaces.” It is a poetic postmodern reminder that art resonates beyond the context of its makers. Does it make sense to distinguish Native American art today from other contemporary art? Does the category perpetuate generalizations and patterns of thinking? By blurring Native and non-Native elements, Gibson keeps these questions alive and insures that the art remains central to our answers.