At the deCordova, Jeffrey Gibson weaves a dazzling display of subversion and joy

Murray Whyte, The Boston Globe, November 4, 2021

LINCOLN — There are exhibitions — rare as they are — that I hesitate to put words to. Not that I can’t — hey, it’s a living — but more that I’d rather not, for fear of over-prefacing your own encounter and stealing the magic.


I can’t not tell you about Jeffrey Gibson’s “Infinite Indigenous Queer Love,” just a couple of weeks’ old at the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum. But my fear of spoiling the sheer delight of its discovery — even for Gibson enthusiasts, and there are many — is tempered by faith that the work can handle it. Over an hour and a half one recent morning, I circled back three or four times just to be with it. No amount of gushy preface can break its spell entirely; it’s that powerful, that singular.


What I will do, at least a little, is stall. But please, trust that it’s stalling with purpose. First, the artist: Gibson, who is Choctaw-Cherokee, has teased a dazzling oeuvre from the threads of his multifarious identity — as a Native American, as a gay man, and as a contemporary artist navigating the stereotypes and misconceptions of both.


Gibson filters what the larger world might imagine as traditional Indigenous aesthetics — beading and weaving, rawhide and fringe — through his thoroughly contemporary experience as a gay artist. His work — often sculpture or tapestry, sometimes video, drawing, painting, and collage — helps situate Indigenous culture in the here and now as thriving and dynamic; bright, coloful, and often brimming with wry contradiction, it defies conventional thought with a sly, ebullient joy.


I’m sure you can see I’m circling, but patience, please; one step at a time. The first thing you find as you mount the long day-lit staircase from the deCordova lobby is a pair of darkened spaces where several of the artist’s collaborative video projects unspool. Strung together as they are, they’re a commitment: A pair of videos, one made with violinist Laura Ortman and another with choreographer Emily Johnson, span more than 30 minutes; in another gallery, four more pieces — with an array of co-conspirators — stretch longer.


Depending on how long you linger, both spaces tell you much about the artist’s life and work, steeped in community and collaboration. It’s good exposition; no solipsist is he. There’s a strength in numbers, the videos seem to say, as they negotiate the fractured political landscape of a nation in turmoil, where different is dangerous.


I’m much more used to the works that made Gibson’s career, whether his brightly patterned garb-like tapestries that often hang like banners from museum rafters, or his sculptural pieces of distorted human figures emblazoned with cryptic slogans. At the Portland Museum of Art, the permanent collection includes an intricate, outsize kachina-like figure beaded with the phrase “PEOPLE LIKE US”; a towering peg-legged creature draped in flowing fringe at the Hood Museum seems almost to shout its title out loud: “HOW MUCH DO YOU WANT? WHEN DO YOU WANT IT?”


Almost a decade ago, Gibson’s breakout work was a series of punching bags festooned with fringes and beads, an unsubtle nod to the frustration of being pigeonholed and prejudged as a Native American artist. They’re beautiful, cheeky, and simmering with the artist’s discontent. The sculptural works that followed retained those qualities; they combat preconception by being simultaneously seductive, menacing, and macabre.


On the museum’s top floor, a suite of four new collage pieces resonate similar concerns. A departure for the artist, they’re a mash-up bricolage of paint, printed matter, beadwork, and objects from the artist’s personal collection that illustrate the push-pull of Indigenous identity: some, Native American tourist tchotchke (a beaded yellow flower); others, protest ephemera from movements like “Red Power,” an Indigenous self-determination movement in the 1960s and ‘70s.


So much of the power in Gibson’s work lives in the off-kilter marriage of subversion and joy — joy for material, for color, and the artist’s unfettered embrace of those things to advocate for Indigenous culture’s visibility as contemporary, self-aware and thriving. But it’s never simply celebratory. Gibson’s work grapples with mainstream cultural history as a realm hermetically sealed from difference. His symbolic universe leans as heavily on the rigid form/color dichotomy of 20th-century American Modernism as it does Indigenous motifs. His work is a deliberate, violently gleeful collision of two solitudes, claiming space where it was denied.


Which means we’re finally here. A gap at the end of the long wall where the collage works hang bleeds shadow, darkness fizzing at the edge of light. Round the corner into the gloom and the exhibition’s aha moment: Three bright monoliths hovering light-as-air above the gallery floor, crisp and sharp and imbued with an elegance so overpowering that I literally had to catch my breath.


They have engulfing presence. A visit to the Mark Rothko Chapel in Houston made the hairs on my neck stand on end much like this; it’s something a friend once described as “aesthetic experience:” a visual sensation so intense that it slips rational thought and rushes straight to the emotion receptors of the brain. Like Rothko’s dark canvases in Houston, arrayed in an octagon and bathed in filtered sunlight, Gibson’s installation evoked a serotonin rush, a warm bath for the mind.


Shimmering in silence, aglow in the shadow, the trio of pieces remakes the space as something indeterminately holy, like a temple or shrine. But Gibson’s complaint with American abstraction is seated less in the spiritual than the inhumanly bureaucratic. The artist is attuned to Modernism — which, in the United States, exploded with Abstract Expressionists like Rothko in the 1950s — largely because it marks the moment when the lanes narrowed and the slate of history was wiped clean: The rise of Abstract Expressionism brought with it prescriptive notions of what “high art” — past and present — could be, and what it could not. That it paralleled the passage of the federal Indian Relocation Act of 1956, aimed at weakening reservations by paying Native Americans to move to cities and self-assimilate, underpins Gibson’s work. In his hands, abstraction is a language of erasure that he’s reclaimed for himself.


In the darkened space, the monolithic works are both massive and weightless. From afar, they loom as spare monuments of gradient color: crimson to black to ash; cobalt to violet to sunflower-yellow. Up close, they’re wisp-like, perfectly arrayed strands of synthetic fringe dangling in strict formation from a near-invisible armature suspended from the ceiling. Don’t touch — though it’s tempting — but you can get a sense of their lightness simply by walking briskly by; the fringes catch the breeze of your wake and quiver slightly before falling back to rest.


Abstract Expressionism was — famously, pompously — its own end: It aimed to capture only emotion, flash-frozen in paint. Gibson begs to differ. Throughout North America, bright synthetic fringe adorns the regalia of powwow dancers; their every movement provokes a cascade of color. Gibson’s works here have the stony presence of monuments. But that slight shiver as you walk past, is, so critically, a sign of life.


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