Jeffrey Gibson’s art is like a beautiful hammer: a finely wrought tool capable of gentle taps or potent blows. In Gibson’s hands, indigenous craft methods, colorful abstraction and complex symbols fuse into iconic forms, knocking down boundaries between traditional Native practices and the art world, with its history of privileging certain kinds of people and certain kinds of art.
The first major traveling exhibition of Gibson’s work — and, yes, the show is titled “Like a Hammer” — recently opened at the Seattle Art Museum, with gallery after gallery of beaded punching bags, geometric rawhide paintings, wall-hangings emblazoned with quotations and arrowheads, and genre-crossing performances, videos, installations and other objects.
Gibson, a queer artist of Cherokee and Mississippi Choctaw heritage, has brought increased attention to contemporary Native American artists, using a mash-up approach to forge art that is personal and political. (Gibson was also recently announced as one of the participants in the prestigious Whitney Biennial of American Art.)
Gibson’s objects are both instantly knowable and infinitely interpretable. Immediately, we might sense that his Everlast punching-bag sculptures are stand-ins for the aggression toward marginalized people. They’re also gorgeous, powerful, everlasting objects, intricately covered with nods to indigenous artistic legacies — beads, cone-shaped metal jingles, shawl fringe — and occasional pieces of Gibson’s individual artistic past, as with the inclusion of some of his washed, repurposed paintings.