There are obstacles at the heart of political art that seem simple in the telling, but that surprisingly few artists can negotiate with perfect confidence. If you’re a member of an underrepresented class, that’s part of who you are, and it’s natural that your work reflect as much. But that runs the risk of making it seem burdened with messages. Moreover, you’ll be expected to speak for the entirety of your kind, when other artists need only speak for themselves. Your liberation may be transformed into the means of your confinement, as gross paraphrases of your work come to replace the subtleties and slipperiness of what you actually made.
I’ve never met an artist quite so enmeshed in this paradox as Jeffrey Gibson, who is half Choctaw and half Cherokee, gay, a new parent, and the grandson of Christian preachers on both sides of his family, and who is keenly trying to make his way through what any or all of these might mean––to him, to others, and to his art.
His work is vivid and distinct, and yet curiously difficult to describe. Large paintings covered in hard-edged geometric grids and triangles, which upon closer inspection prove to harbor barely legible text, usually quoting a song. work to the live to the love to the slave to the rhythm says one, care of Grace Jones. Another quotes a club hit by Indeep: last night a DJ saved my life. There are Everlast heavy punching bags festooned with colorful beadwork that forms elaborate geometries; effigies blanketed with metal jingles; beaded robes trimmed with plastic organza. They signal a Native aesthetic, but not a pure one, visual style as fervent syncretism. Rather than bearing down on some essential ethno-culture, they branch outward into adjacent histories: gay life, club life, Gibson’s own life. The punching bags, for example, are a reference to a boxing work- out the artist was encouraged to perform by his therapist as a means of coming to terms with his body and his sexuality. So they represent many layers of identity, woven into a seamless, sculptural whole. “My history with identity politics has made me very suspect of naming,” Gibson told me on a gloomy day last November. “You have more freedom when it’s unnamed. Asking for acknowledgment is a trap, because you’re giving someone else the power to say yes or no.”
A few years ago, Gibson moved up to Hudson, New York, a couple of hours north of Manhattan, close enough to go into the city for a show, but far enough outside it that he can duck the hype and the absurdly high expenses. He lives a quiet country life with his husband and two-year-old daughter and works in a repurposed school just outside of town, using one room as an office, another as a workshop, and what appears to have been a gymnasium as a painting studio.
On the day I visited, he had a lot going on: His first show at Sikkema Jenkins & Co. had just opened, and there were three museum shows across the country. At the same time, he was preparing a booth at Art Basel Miami Beach, fielding an invitation to participate in the upcoming Whitney Biennial, and planning a residency at the New Museum in Manhattan, which lasts until mid-June. Still, the rooms had an air of serene energy, with assistants scattered about, stringing beads and sewing together porcupine quills and prepping canvases, and Gibson himself taking a few minutes to brush some glossy varnish on a painting.
Sitting in his studio, Gibson talked about trying to navigate a world that all too often offers crude distinctions––and just as crude connections––between an artist’s work and their biography. For his part, he’d prefer to honor the subtle and sometimes paradoxical relationships between the two. “That whole language we use to talk about these issues is relatively stunted. We could talk about this with the vocabulary of a thousand words, but instead we really talk about it with 250. And so I think part of my goal has been just to try to increase that number.”
As personal biographies go, Gibson’s is striking. He was born in Colorado, the son of an engineer and a human- resources officer, both of whom worked for the Department of Defense. The vagaries of military life being what they are, he was raised around the world––in the U.S., but also Germany, Korea, England. He holds an undergraduate degree from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and an MA from the Royal College of Art in London; along the way there have been sojourns in Maryland, San Francisco, New York City.
At 47, he’s breaking through a good 10 years after artists usually do, but he comes across as more ingenuous than wizened. He is happy to explain his work, but a bit tired of doing so. Toward the end of our afternoon together, I asked him if he ever just wanted to sit down and paint, the way others get to paint: for the joy of it, without having to explain or justify it.
“I started making the other work to contextualize the painting,” he told me. “[But] painting is the one thing that you have real-time, reciprocal pleasure in producing. You know right then when it’s right.” There are few substitutes for the simple, joyful act of pushing paint around on a flat surface. “There’s just a pleasure in color,” Gibson told me, but pleasure can be hard to come by, and is best when it’s earned. In conversation, he speaks regularly of allowing himself to do this or that, of obligation, freedom, and acceptance; and this, too, is part of the curse and blessing of being an artist of difference. Balancing it all is a lifelong task. Doing so in public is a performance of considerable difficulty. “I can feel overwhelmed,” Gibson said, “but I just start trying to move forward, trying to center myself, and ask myself what I’m interested in right now.”