N.Y. One sunny afternoon early this month Jeffrey Gibson
paced around his studio, trying to keep track of which of his artworks
was going where.
Luminous geometric abstractions, meticulously painted on deer
hide, that hung in one room were about to be picked up for an art
fair. In another sat Mr. Gibson's outsize rendition of a parfleche
trunk, a traditional American Indian rawhide carrying case, covered
with Malevich-like shapes, which would be shipped to New York for
a solo exhibition at the National Academy Museum. Two Delaunay-esque
abstractions made with acrylic on unstretched elk hides had already
been sent to a museum in Ottawa, but the air was still suffused
with the incense-like fragrance of the smoke used to color the skins.
"If you'd told me five years ago that this was where my work
was going to lead," said Mr. Gibson, gesturing to other pieces,
including two beaded punching bags and a cluster of painted drums,
"I never would have believed it." Now 41, he is a member of the
Mississippi Band of
Choctaw Indians and half-Cherokee. But for years, he said, he
resisted the impulse to quote traditional Indian art, just as he
had rejected the pressure he'd felt in art school to make work that
reflected his so-called identity.
"The way we describe identity here is so reductive," Mr.
Gibson said. "It never bleeds into seeing you as a more multifaceted
person." But now "I'm finally at the point where I can feel comfortable
being your introduction" to American Indian culture, he added. "It's
just a huge acceptance of self."
Judging from Mr. Gibson's growing number of exhibitions, self-acceptance
has done his work a lot of good. In addition to the National
Academy exhibition, "Said the Pigeon to the Squirrel," which
opens Thursday and runs through Sept. 8, his pieces can be seen
in four other places.
Song," Mr. Gibson's first solo museum show, opened this month at
of Contemporary Art, Boston, with 20 silk-screened paintings,
a video and two sculptures, one of which strings together seven
painted drums. The smoked elk hide paintings are now on view in
"Sakahàn," a huge group exhibition of international indigenous
art that opened last Friday at the National Gallery of Canada in
Ottawa. And an installation of shield-shaped wall hangings, made
from painted hides and tepee poles, is at the Cornell Fine Arts
Museum at Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla.
Mr. Gibson also has work in a group exhibition at the Wilmer
Jennings Gallery at Kenkeleba, a longtime East Village multicultural
showcase through June 2. Called "The Old Becomes the New," it explores
the relationship between New York's contemporary American Indian
artists and postwar abstractionists like Robert Rauschenberg and
Leon Polk Smith who were influenced by traditional Indian art. Mr.
Gibson's contribution is two cinder blocks wrapped in rawhide and
painted with superimposed rectangles of color, creating a surprisingly
harmonious mash-up of Josef Albers and Donald Judd with the ceremonial
The work's hybrid nature has given curators different aspects
to appreciate. Kathleen Ash-Milby, an associate curator at the Smithsonian
National Museum of the American Indian in Lower Manhattan, said
she loved Mr. Gibson's use of color and his adventurousness with
materials, and that he has "been able to be successful in the mainstream
and continue his association with Native art and artists." (Ms.
Ash-Milby gave Mr. Gibson his first New York solo show, in 2005
at the American Indian Community House.)
Marshall N. Price, curator of the National Academy show, said
he was drawn by Mr. Gibson's drive to explore "both the problematic
legacies of his own heritage and the problematic legacy of modernism"
through the lens of geometric abstraction. (Which, he noted, "has
a long tradition in Native American art history as well.")
And for Jenelle Porter, the Institute of Contemporary Art curator
who organized the Boston show, it's Mr. Gibson's ability to "foreground
his background," as she put it, in a striking and accessible way.
Ms. Porter discovered his work early last year, in a solo two-gallery
exhibition organized by the downtown nonprofit space Participant
"People were raving about the show," she said. "So I went over
there and I was absolutely floored."
work was "visually compelling, and not didactic," she added. And
because "he's painting on hide, painting on drums, you have to talk
about where it comes from."
Mr. Gibson only recently figured out how to start that conversation.
Because his father worked for the Defense Department, he was raised
in South Korea, Germany and different cities in the United States,
so "acclimating was normal to me," he said. And one of the most
persistent messages he heard growing up was "never to identify as
a minority," he added.
At the same time, because much of his extended family lives
near reservations in Oklahoma and Mississippi, Mr. Gibson also grew
up going to powwows and Indian festivals. He even briefly considered
studying traditional Indian art, but instead opted to major in studio
art at a community college near his parents' house outside Washington.
In 1992, he landed at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago.
There, Mr. Gibson, who had just come out as gay, often felt
pressured to examine just one aspect of his life his Indian
heritage, with its implicit cultural sense of victimhood
when what he really yearned to do was to paint like Matisse or Warhol.
At the same time, he was learning about that heritage in a new way
as a research assistant at the Field Museum aiding its compliance
with the 1990
Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.
As he watched the Indian tribal elders who frequently visited
to examine the drums, parfleche
containers, headdresses and the like in the Field's collection,
Mr. Gibson was struck by their radically different responses. Some
groups "would break down in tears," he said. "Or there would be
He came to see traditional art then "as a very powerful form
of resistance" and to better "understand its relationship to contemporary
life." And nothing else he'd encountered "felt as complete and fully
formed as the objects themselves," he said. "It certainly made it
difficult for me to go into the studio and paint."
Yet paint Mr. Gibson did mostly expressionistic landscapes
filled with Disney characters, like Pocahontas, and decorated with
sequins and glitter. His work continued in a similar vein while
he was earning his M.F.A. at the Royal College of Art in London.
Although the Mississippi Band paid for his education, the experience
gave him a welcome break from grappling with concerns about identity,
he said, and a chance "to just look at art and think about the formal
qualities of making an artwork." (Along the way, he also met his
husband, the Norwegian sculptor Rune Olsen.)
After returning to the United States in 1999, this time to
New York and New Jersey, Mr. Gibson began painting fantastical pastoral
scenes, embellishing their surfaces with crystal beads and bubbles
of pigmented silicone, recalling 1970s Pattern and Decoration art.
Those led to his first solo show with Ms. Ash-Milby in 2005, and
his inclusion in the 2007 group show "Off the Map: Landscape in
the Native Imagination" at the National Museum of the American Indian,
as well as other group shows.
At the same time, Mr. Gibson was making sculptures with mannequins
and African masks. While struggling to understand Minimalism, he
also began to see the connection between Modernist geometric abstraction
and the designs on the objects that had transfixed him in the Field's
His 2012 show with Participant, "One Becomes the Other," proved
to be a turning point. In it, he collaborated with traditional Indian
artists to create works like the string of painted drums, or a deer
hide quiver that held an arrow made from a pink fluorescent bulb.
And once he set brush to rawhide, Mr. Gibson said, he was hooked.
As well as being "an amazing surface to work on," he said, "its
relationship to parchment intrigued me."
Its use also "positions the viewer to look through the lens
that I'd been working so hard to illustrate."
But the underlying change, Mr. Gibson added, came from his
decision to shed the notion of being a member of a minority group.
Suddenly all art, European, American and Indian alike, became merely
"individual points on this periphery around me," he said. "Once
I thought of myself as the center, the world opened up."