Jeffrey Gibson wants to make connections: Between Native American tradition and contemporary art, between anger and release, oppression and expression, masculine and feminine, between the tipi architecture of his ancestors and the easy-breezy music of George Michael, Stevie Wonder and Public Enemy.
Twentieth Century pop pulses in the background of “Like a Hammer,” an exhibit of Gibson’s recent work now at the Denver Art Museum, just like the 46-year-old artist says it did in his studio back in his coming-of-age days. The music loosened him up, helped him sort out his identity, filtered the fact of his Cherokee background through the fiction that Indian culture barely existed in mainstream America.
His art aims to reconcile those two worlds, and it does so elaborately, colorfully, blatantly, beautifully. The materials that make up his two- and three-dimensional objects in “Like a Hammer” carry a message, and centuries of indigenous history: beads, fringe, elk hide, turquoise and tin jingles, those tiny bells that dancers wear and shake for effect at powwows.
These things are brought together, with skill and precision, using native techniques. Their presentation on the main floor of an established cultural institution like DAM brings credibility to the sort of “craft” that usually plays second to the “art” of European painting and sculpting in the museum world.
Gibson, who was born in Colorado Springs and lives in upstate New York, has serious things to say, but his art also has a whimsical flair. One sculpture — a haunting female figure wrapped in a wool blanket, with a skull-like, ceramic head and repurposed tipi poles for legs — was inspired by visions of an ancestor that appeared in Gibson’s dreams. She only spoke in lyrics of pop songs — hence the title “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You,” from the 1960s hit by Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. The song is simultaneously playing over the gallery’s speakers.
Same thing happens with another intricately beaded piece that actually spells out the text “I Put a Spell on You.” Stand there staring for awhile and Nina Simone’s version of the blues classic begins to play.
Gibson’s tactic throughout this exhibit is to weave, sometimes literally, these expressions of native technique with non-native objects and concepts. For “Head On,” he replaces the glass of an Old West- stye antique shaving mirror with deer hide and paints on it an abstract geometric pattern that might be associated with modern-art icons, such as Frank Stella or Ellsworth Kelly.
What might have happened, Gibson wonders in the show’s accompanying text, if Native American painters had worked side-by-side with the masters of that modern art movement? Would they have made something like “Quiver,” Gibson’s work from 2102, that uses a fluorescent light tube (borrowing from famed artists of that era, like Dan Flavin or Bruce Nauman), to make a container for arrows? Or something like his 2012 “Beaded Column,” which adds stunning beadwork to a minimalist column that might be associated with Donald Judd or Robert Morris?
A lot of Gibson’s work exists somewhere between fanciful and deadly serious. There’s a chuckle when you make out the well-known Helen Reddy lyric beaded subtly into the red-and-white tapestry-like piece “In Numbers Too Big Too Ignore,” but the levity drops when you realize the work is meant to bring attention to violence against Indian women.
His best-known creations — and the flashy stars of this show — are the repurposed canvas punching bags he has adorned with native elements. The bags hang fist-high off the ground and are covered in precisely-patterned glass beads, nylon, fringe, recycled wool blankets, and tin jingles. They are shiny, brightly hued, meticulous works.
Gibson says a physical therapist once suggested he work out with a punching bag to overcome some stress issues, and that inspired him to think of the objects in new ways. You can see him working out things much deeper than stress with decorated bags that have their titles spelled out in beads — internal things, like “I’m Not Perfect,” and challenges to external things, like “White Power.”
As metaphors, the punching bags have multiple meanings. They are a safe place to take out aggressions stored up by a culture over centuries. They are also a feminized treatment of a symbol of male-dominated sport.
But there’s also no escaping a connection, intended or not, to the notion that Indians have themselves been punching bags — blamed, robbed, chased, corralled, killed, made invisible — and that this Indian-izing of an object of culturally sanctioned violence is way of taking back the power.
“Like a Hammer” is assembled with considerable thought by DAM’s Native Arts curator John Lukavic. Each of these objects is a Vegas-level showpiece, but the exhibit is divided up and paced in a way where they all get their due. The background music is a genuine treat (turn it up!).
DAM hosted Gibson for an extended residency in 2014, and the connection between the institution and the artist heightens the show. There’s a video that Gibson made during his stay that has present-day Indian artists relating poetically to native artifacts in the museum’s collection. It’s worth watching for its entire 20 minutes.
The relationship enhances the exhibit because Lukavic and his team fully understand Gibson’s work and where it is going. The show ends with some very recent pieces that have Gibson giving up the beads and fringe and painting directly on canvas — Euro-style. Works like “Crow” and “All Things Big and Small” reject a penchant for the flamboyant and embrace order and nuance.
They are still part native in the way they abstract patterns seen in indigenous weavings and beadwork, but they are made with contemporary tools, brushes, acrylic paints, stretched canvas.
They are comparatively understated works in “Like a Hammer,” but crucial to the exhibit’s success. They’re mature in their way and show the artist coming to understand that those connections between conflicting forms of artistic expression are complicated and can be rendered in multiple ways, some full of punch and some with a softer touch.
“Jeffrey Gibson: Like a Hammer” continues through Aug. 12 at the Denver Art Museum, 13th Avenue between Broadway and Bannock streets. 720-913-0130 or denverartmuseum.org.