Jeffrey Gibson, a queer artist of Mississippi Choctaw and Cherokee heritage, has brought increased attention to contemporary Native American artists, using a mash-up approach to forge art that is personal and political. In his hands, indigenous craft methods, colorful abstraction and complex symbols fuse into iconic forms.
Jeffrey Gibson’s art is like a beautiful hammer: a finely wrought tool capable of gentle taps or potent blows. In Gibson’s hands, indigenous craft methods, colorful abstraction and complex symbols fuse into iconic forms, knocking down boundaries between traditional Native practices and the art world, with its history of privileging certain kinds of people and certain kinds of art.
The first major traveling exhibition of Gibson’s work — and, yes, the show is titled “Like a Hammer” — recently opened at the Seattle Art Museum, with gallery after gallery of beaded punching bags, geometric rawhide paintings, wall-hangings emblazoned with quotations and arrowheads, and genre-crossing performances, videos, installations and other objects.
Gibson, a queer artist of Cherokee and Mississippi Choctaw heritage, has brought increased attention to contemporary Native American artists, using a mash-up approach to forge art that is personal and political. (Gibson was also recently announced as one of the participants in the prestigious Whitney Biennial of American Art.)
Most Read Entertainment Stories
Gibson’s objects are both instantly knowable and infinitely interpretable. Immediately, we might sense that his Everlast punching-bag sculptures are stand-ins for the aggression toward marginalized people. They’re also gorgeous, powerful, everlasting objects, intricately covered with nods to indigenous artistic legacies — beads, cone-shaped metal jingles, shawl fringe — and occasional pieces of Gibson’s individual artistic past, as with the inclusion of some of his washed, repurposed paintings.
In a recent interview, Gibson talked about his strategies of appropriation and invention.
“This is the most important thing to understand: How powerful aesthetics are, along with the ability for people to transform things for their own use,” he said. “That inventiveness and authorship — which have always been part of indigenous uses of material — have been stunted for many reasons. But we need to become authors of our own selves and futures.”
Gibson says he has long been interested in these questions of identity, craft and aesthetics, but his earlier, abstract paintings were typically interpreted in purely formal terms: color, line, composition. While finding some success, he was struggling with his work and with the demands of the New York City art world.
One day, around 2006, he decided to start afresh. He slashed his canvases from their stretcher bars, took them to a laundromat, and washed them. Later, he refashioned those washed fragments — now simple, warped textiles — into collages and sculptural work.
He sought out indigenous makers to learn from, and began to make overt, intersectional statements about identity. And, yes, he returned to painting, often using rawhide as his canvas, another reference to indigenous art history.
The exhibition, with its focus on Gibson’s art since 2011, is not a typical midcareer survey. Rather than offering an evolutionary tour of style, the exhibition exudes a feeling: a bold, fluid simultaneity, grounded in striking pattern, color and craftsmanship and provocative references to music, personal stories and indigenous practices.
It’s a timely show for Seattle, which has increasingly engaged in conversations about the relationship between traditional and contemporary Native American art, with several recent exhibitions at the Frye Art Museum and last year’s SAM exhibition of three contemporary Native artists — Marianne Nicolson, Tracy Rector and Will Wilson — alongside historical photographs of indigenous people by Edward Curtis.
Later this month, ARTS at King Street Station, Seattle’s new arts and culture hub, will open with “yəhaw̓,” a huge exhibition featuring work from indigenous creatives.
Organized by the Denver Art Museum, “Jeffrey Gibson: Like a Hammer” contains a work only seen in SAM’s version of the exhibition: “DON’T MAKE ME OVER,” a dreamy enclosure made of rainbow-hued, lyrics-covered fabric, inspired by Gibson’s desire to more fully embrace the rainbow as a symbol during this time of renewed threats against LGBTQ+ rights. We can peek into but cannot enter the installation, which Gibson has performed within, wearing a creation of iridescent white organza and hundreds of gold bells. The regal garment now hangs from tipi poles inside the colorful curtains.
The exhibition also features Gibson’s punching bags, the form he is most known for. There are two big groupings of them, hanging like solemn, bedazzled bodies, monolithic in their weighty forms and intimate in their detail.
Other objects are more obviously figurative, as with the “club kid” sculptures, some of which stand almost 5 feet tall, and are exuberantly embellished with metal studs, glass beads, crystals, fur and other materials that seem directly or vaguely Native, punk and/or queer. These stuffed, stitched and highly ornamented sculptures are inspired by Gibson’s youthful experiences in the gay-club scenes of South Korea, London and New York, and are reminiscent of Native American ceremonial forms and doll-like figures produced for the tourist trade.
Two of the most powerful sculptures in the show are the bent, fringed and cloaked “ancestor” figures, based on a female apparition from Gibson’s dreams. The title of one — “CAN’T TAKE MY EYES OFF OF YOU” — refers both to romantic songs and the watchful presence of ancestors.
Gibson, who worked in the archives of Chicago’s Field Museum in the 1990s and has studied Native American art practices, draws inspiration from history. But he sees a lot of his creations as “proposals for the future.”
“In the late ’80s and early ’90s, we talked a lot about boundaries falling,” he said. “We talked about that formally, like between painting and sculpture, but also about a kind of fantasy of crossing boundaries. I imagined a world where I would have a child that came from different nationalities and racial backgrounds.”
Gibson, who is now 46, married, and a father, laughs and says, “As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to see some naiveté in that. But I’ve decided that’s where I’m going to put my energy, into building that world.”
“Jeffrey Gibson: Like a Hammer,” 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesdays, Fridays-Sundays; 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Thursdays, through May 12; Seattle Art Museum, 1300 First Ave.; $14.95-$24.95, free for SAM members and children 12 and under; 206-654-3100, seattleartmuseum.org.