Not a lot of people find artistic rebirth at the laundromat. Then again, unpredictability is what makes creative epiphanies so special.
In the case of Choctaw-Cherokee artist Jeffrey Gibson, the 2006 “laundromat incident” occurred during a long period of creative frustration. Unhappy with his recent work, the painter walked into his Brooklyn, New York, studio with a razor blade and cut every painting off its stretcher bars. Determined to “wash away” his creative rut, he took the canvases to the laundry and dumped them all in a machine. That’s when something unexpected happened.
“What happens in the wash is the cotton canvas shrinks and the paint tries to release itself,” says Gibson, 46, who earned a master of arts degree from the Royal College of Art, London. “I ended up with something unique, an irregular textile. It was no longer a painting; it was something I could reconfigure any way I wanted.”
What’s followed has been a prolific explosion described by Denver Art Museum director Christoph Heinrich as “a pivotal and productive time when [Gibson] fully developed his own visual language.” The highlights of that language — which are now in permanent collections at major museums including the Smithsonian; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; and National Gallery of Canada — have been collected into Like a Hammer, the first major career retrospective of Gibson’s work. Debuting at the Denver Art Museum and then traveling, the show includes 57 objects: wall hangings, paintings on rawhide, and 15 of Gibson’s signature “adorned punching bags.”
By decorating the bags with materials typical of women’s powwow accessories — jingles, beads, fringe, ribbons — exhibition curator John Lukavic of Denver Art Museum says Gibson “subverts our association of punching bags with masculinity.”
“Many people have relationships with the idea of victimhood and achievement, both of which are represented in the punching bags,” Gibson adds.
Another powerful piece, In Numbers Too Big to Ignore is a deceptively simple blood-red geometric wall hanging. With its title taken from the 1972 Helen Reddy hit “I Am Woman,” the piece evokes the tragedy of indigenous women, who are murdered or go missing at disproportionately high rates.
“When I was traveling a lot in the U.S. and Canada and meeting with different Native communities, most people I met were connected to a missing indigenous woman from their community,” Gibson says.
There are messages Gibson wants audiences to take away from Like a Hammer. “I’m hoping Native artists and others see my exhibition as creating a space for more Native artists to be shown in a [contemporary] context,” he says. “Me and other Native people really lack significant representation in the contemporary art world.” Lukavic agrees: “This exhibition is going beyond old tropes associated with contemporary Native artists that are stuck in the same ways of viewing and talking about them.”
Gibson’s Flag speaks to those ambitions. One of the first pieces he created after the laundromat purge, the multihued banner injected with the intertribal powwow themes that fuel much of Gibson’s work was made from a fabric remnant that was transformed into something new and remarkable on that tumultuous day.
“Powwow is a place within Native American culture where individuality is celebrated,” Gibson says. “It’s a place where the stoic collective image of Native people is broken.”
If smashing an existing stereotype and creating something more vibrant and complex from its ruins is the hallmark of contemporary art, Gibson is clearly the man to wield the hammer.
From the August/September 2018 issue. Like a Hammer is on view through August 12 at Denver Art Museum. It will be on view September 8, 2018 – January 20, 2019, at Mississippi Museum of Art in Jackson; February 28 – May 12, 2019, at Seattle Art Museum; and June 7 – September 14, 2019, at Madison Museum of Contemporary Art in Madison, Wisconsin. Photography: (The Difference Between You + Me, I Put A Spell On You, You Can Feel It All Over, Like A Hammer) © Pete Mauney.