Roberts & Tilton
Jeffrey Gibson: In Such Times
Daniel Joseph Martinez: Divine Violence
(September 9—October 21, 2017)
Within its festoon of embellishments, tertiary palettes, intriguing elements of text and more shiny fringe than gallery-goers might be accustomed to, Jeffrey Gibson’s art is activated by the direct interplay of motif and meaning. The work’s visual paradoxes cohere into a unified aesthetic, largely because the relationship of abstract shape and color to the semiotic structure of language is territory common to both spheres of his practice: reworking Modernist and Native American visual tropes. The same hybrid quality is also true of his deconstruction and reclamation of social signifiers from popular culture and craft, even more so in the specific way Gibson seeks to integrate both into the conceptual discourse of contemporary art.
Plenty of artists have responded to the dominance of Modernism by fusing its core values with emblems of their own unique identity, or by executing those values in unconventional media. Gibson does both, viewing his formalist problem-solving through the cultural and personal experiences of his own Cherokee and Choctaw heritage, plus his education in Christianity and Art History. As he reclaims motifs of the iconic Old West blanket trade, he wrangles the baubles and beads of ritual tribal decoration, and, finally, throws in salient references from mainstream music and fashion—all somehow resulting in mixed media works that evoke paintings by the likes of Ellsworth Kelly. Asking questions about cultural appropriation, institutional narratives, assimilation and sovereignty, ownership, authorship and identity, Gibson’s special gift is his gentle manner of provoking the viewer to answer for themselves.
While most of the works hang on the wall—the better to reinforce traits derived from their woven ancestors and to show off their enticing fringe and fancy foils—a pair of embellished punching bag sculptures hang at either end of the room. One is about power and language, the other about love and nostalgia. They are both about much more: race and gender, sexuality and faith, memory and obsession, and the intersectional deconstruction of systemic everything.
The beaded, text-based sculpture about power creates some shivers in color-based word-play, while the trinket-encrusted, flouncy-bottomed one about love toes the line between kitsch and pure emotion. Both are powerful, unique iterations on the form. While we readily perceive the messages “encoded” in the snippets of text throughout all the works, it is important to keep in mind that the abstract patterns of color and shape that form their foundation were once an active, complex language of their own, literally encoding communications between and among First Nation tribes. But there again, the phrase “language of abstraction” will be familiar to any student of modern art, such as Gibson himself.
The pairing of Gibson with a project room installation by Daniel Joseph Martinez is inspired. Both artists combine the use of text, color and religious/art historical signifiers as elements of composition and direct messages. In Martinez’s installation, a grid of gold enamel panels with hand-lettering listing the names of violent groups, sects and organizations, the room initially presents like a chapel, the warm glow of the gold diffusing throughout the space. The names do not all sound terrible. The KKK, Machete Wielders, Generation of Fury, okay sure. But the Peace Conquerors and the Creativity Movement sound lovely. Nope. These are all groups known for their violent political activism. A larger-scale version of Divine Violence was included in the 2008 Whitney Biennial and still lives in its permanent collection, but this intimate restaging on the occasion of Pacific Standard Time—and given the current state of geopolitics and domestic strife —strikes a fresh, poignant and timely tone. Martinez, in his way, also draws on familiar cultural and religious motifs, as well as art history and even a dash of Warhol, generating emotional discomfiture amid aesthetic pleasure.