Jeffrey Gibson isn’t from Portland. He lives in New York, but when Kathleen Ash-Milby, the Portland Art Museum’s curator of Native American art, was looking for an artist to create a site-responsive piece to complement her retrospective of Oscar Howe, Gibson immediately came to mind.
Howe, a modernist Dakota artist who died in 1983, believed in the importance of supporting younger generations of artists.
“A lot of people think of him as almost a grandfather of contemporary Native American art,” Ash-Milby said.
She spent years working on Dakota Modern: The Art of Oscar Howe, which opens at the Portland Art Museum on Oct. 29 after debuting in New York last spring. She said she always wanted a contemporary art component of the show but was unable to get one in time for the initial debut.
“I thought of Jeffrey immediately,” Ash-Milby said, “in part because of his use of geometry and geometric abstraction and his real focus on color and sophisticated use of color.”
“Oscar uses a lot of geometric abstraction in his work and really was a master of color,” she continued, “so there’s a formal relationship between the two of them. But also Jeffrey is part of this lineage of contemporary Native American art.”
When Gibson, who is a member of the Mississippi Band Choctaw and of Cherokee descent, came to visit the museum in the fall of 2021, Ash-Milby showed him several possible sites where he could create work. When visitors come to Jeffrey Gibson: They Come From Fire, they will see his work displayed in three separate locations.
The Jeffrey Gibson exhibit at the Portland Art Museum features several glass panels made by glass fabricators at Portland’s Bullseye Studio
Experiencing his first installation doesn’t require entering the building.
Colorful panels on the museum’s facade give a rough timeline of Native history in Oregon, going from the broad and sometimes tragic – “1930-34, Malaria kills 80-90% of remaining Indigenous populations of the Portland Basin and Willamette Valley” – to the personal and specific – “2018, Silas Hoffer becomes the first ~out~ Two Spirit/Transgender/Gay member in their family.”
“I showed him the empty pedestals and talked about the monuments that had been taken down there,” she said. “I’ve always thought, ever since that happened, especially in front of our museum, ‘This seems like a perfect spot for an artist intervention.’”
In front of the wall of portraits, hanging from the ceiling, are glass panels made at Bullseye Glass. The panels feature phrases that tell their own story and reflect light in patterns across the faces of Gibson’s subjects.
The exhibit is both striking and meditative. Viewers must take time to look at the faces of those Portlanders Gibson chose to honor.