Upcoming MMOCA show a ‘mash-up’ of tradition and identity — Gayle Worland

Wisconsin State Journal, 06.21.2019

When Madison Museum of Contemporary Art curator Leah Kolb was in New York a couple of years ago, she got an invitation to visit the rural studio of artist Jeffrey Gibson.

“It’s this amazing studio space in upstate New York,” Kolb said. “It’s an old schoolhouse he converted into a big functional studio. I met him and his husband and his sweet little daughter, and took a tour of his work — which was phenomenal.”

Gibson’s colorful, inventive, multi-disciplinary work is closely tied to his own identity – as a contemporary, gay artist of Cherokee and Mississippi Choctaw heritage. At the time Kolb was visiting, the Denver Art Museum was starting to put together a retrospective exhibition of his work. Luckily for Madison, the show would go on tour after Denver (where a reviewer called it “stunning” and “relentlessly eye-dazzling”).

After stops in Jackson, Mississippi, and Seattle, Washington, “Jeffrey Gibson: Like a Hammer” now comes to MMOCA Saturday through Sept. 25, filling the museum’s main galleries with some 65 works, ranging from figures to text-based wall hangings and beaded punching bags. An opening reception with a talk by the artist is scheduled for Friday from 6-9 p.m.

Gibson “is a rising star in the contemporary art world,” said Edgewood College art professor Melanie Herzog, who will give a talk about “Like a Hammer” at MMOCA June 21.

“I feel like Madison is such a great community for that kind of work to be presented, and we have a community that would really respond to it,” Kolb said.

“He’s looking at queer identity in some ways; he’s looking at Native identity; he’s looking at pop culture; he’s looking at different kinds of international influences and contemporary art. It’s just this brilliant mash-up of all these different things, which I feel is particularly appropriate in 2019.”

“Mash-up” is a term that comes up in a lot of descriptions of Gibson’s work. But the artist doesn’t mind.

“Mainly because I think ‘mash-up’ comes from a style of music, which was just about mashing up different genres,” said Gibson, who often incorporates lines from pop music in his work.

“I think the idea of a mash-up is that it’s not really trying to find an eloquent way of having everything come together,” he said. “Sometimes it’s literally just forcing two things together, and then letting them sit side by side, either comfortably or uncomfortably.”

Gibson, 47, grew up in Germany, Korea and the eastern U.S., where his father was a civil engineer with the U.S. Department of Defense.

“My extended families are in Mississippi and Oklahoma,” he said.

“I think because of the way I grew up, oftentimes people want to describe me as not really Native American, because of not having lived on the reservation or grown up around the Choctaw community,” he said in a phone call from his studio.

“But ultimately, you can’t take that away from me just because I don’t fit this narrow description. So if we’re going to describe each other by our backgrounds, that is mine,” he said. “I did grow up in these other countries. (As related to) the work, it’s about that kind of acknowledgment of this full spectrum of my narrative.”

Before earning a master’s at Royal College of Art in London and an honorary doctorate from Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, California, Gibson completed his BFA at the Art Institute of Chicago. Those Midwestern years were “formative,” said the artist, particularly because his Chicago training emphasized performance as well as visual art.

“The idea of the body’s relationship to object-making really resonated with me and stuck with me, and I think has found its way into the work,” he said. The materials he uses from the pow-wow tradition speak of movement; his well-known and lavishly beaded punching bags, embellished with sayings often derived from pop culture, are by nature “a metaphor for the body,” he said.

Still, in Chicago and elsewhere, “it’s always been an ongoing struggle – although maybe that’s overstating it — but in Chicago there were no Native American professors, no one teaching about Native American culture studies or art-making,” Gibson said.

While in Chicago, Gibson also served as a research intern at the Field Museum, where he worked with Native American collections before heading back to the formal art classrooms where he studied painting and sculpture. Eventually he taught himself many of the techniques he now uses, such as beading or painting on hides.

“Really, it’s just practice,” he said. “The studio now has a team of assistants who help to fabricate everything. I imagine it’s similar to any artist studio where we have our own modifications to traditional techniques so that we can do what we need to do with them.”

Along with wall hangings and garments, some of Gibson’s most noted works are made from re-purposed punching bags, a holdover from the days when he was most torn about his place in the art world.

In storage at the Field Museum was an assortment of Victorian-era “Whimsies,” heavily beaded objects made by Native Americans from the Niagara Falls region. The objects were often sold to tourists, and some people consider them “very kitschy and campy,” Gibson said, but “I always felt they sort of represent me – that I’m trapped in the middle of many things. People are sort of curious, but also there’s no place to put me.”

Later, Gibson began working with a therapist “and I realized there were tons of issues for me – anger (and) frustration surrounding homophobia, racism, class-ism in the art world specifically,” he said.

“The therapist suggested I work with a physical trainer, both as a cathartic act but also as a way to try to bring back together my mind-body connection.” Gibson’s trainer put him in front of a punching bag, asking him to work out anger against “societal conditions” like homophobia and racism.

“That (coincided) with me visiting with traditional makers, and seeing their decision to make their own clothing, or to make jewelry, or to make music, or sing or dance – and those became very convincing acts of resistance,” Gibson recalled.

The bags, the tradition — “It all coupled together with this idea of the Whimsies – and I began to think of the punching bags as this hybrid Whimsy,” he said.

Herzog of Edgewood College calls Gibson’s use of materials an “exuberant embrace” of contemporary “hybridity.”

The artist’s work “asks a provocative question: ‘What if 20th-century ‘American’ modernists, some of whom credited Native American art as an inspiration, had worked side-by-side with contemporary Native American artists?’ and proceeds to answer this question,” she said.

Madison is the last stop for “Jeffrey Gibson: Like a Hammer.” Meanwhile, three of his artworks just went on display in the prestigious Whitney Biennial at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. They, too, deal with tradition and modern identity.

“Contemporary identity is — at its core — a hybrid,” Gibson said. “And that will continue. The idea of this kind of purist, homogenous, racial identity or cultural identity hasn’t existed since – I don’t know if it ever existed.

“But certainly we’re at this point where it’s very evident” that it doesn’t, he said. “I guess that’s where I shifted to thinking I could open up my work so that people can project their own sense of hybridity and there could be a relationship about similarity rather than difference, but a similarity that is also incredibly diverse.”