Artist Jeffrey Gibson’s exhibition at the Mississippi Museum of Art in Jackson, Jeffrey Gibson: Like A Hammer, takes its title from a song written by Pete Seeger and Lee Hays in 1949. The tune, “If I Had a Hammer,” was later made popular in the ‘60s by Peter, Paul, and Mary. Like the song, Gibson’s art is a crowd pleaser; eye-catching colors, threaded beadwork, compelling shapes. It’s made for the people. But it is layered, too, like any good populist anthem. Beneath the surface, there is revolution. A call for, as Gibson says in the exhibition catalogue, “building up and tearing down – envisioning something different and making it happen.”
Jeffrey Gibson was born in Colorado and grew up abroad – in Germany and South Korea and elsewhere – where his father worked for the U.S. Defense Department. He studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Royal College of Art, and now lives and works in Hudson, New York. But his roots are also in Mississippi, in Conehatta, where his grandparents farmed. He is a member of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians and half Cherokee, and while Native identity and aesthetics have always been part of his makeup (and that of his artwork), Like A Hammer explodes the presumption that any one label can define him – or any of us.
His work pays homage to Native craft through materials like rawhide, sterling silver, wool blankets, metal cones used in powwow regalia, beads, fringe, and sinew. But his contemporary art practice goes further, coupling these materials with punching bags, ironing boards, and looking glasses. Tradition is a point of departure en route to new frontiers. Emblazoned on many of his works are song lyrics from his years in New York dance clubs, words from Stevie Wonder (You Can Feel It All Over, 2015), Frankie Valli, and Public Enemy. He presents a quote from James Baldwin (American History, 2015) in nuanced beadwork, recasting narratives of the past for contemporary viewers who, because of the irresistible presence of the work, can’t look away.
“The Museum aims to present exhibitions that resonate on many levels for many different viewers, and Like A Hammer does just that,” says Betsy Bradley, Director of the Mississippi Museum of Art. “The Museum is honored to be a part of the artist’s Mississippi homecoming and excited for the conversations his work will inspire.”
The Mississippi Museum of Art has developed a relationship with Gibson: the artist conducted a residency project in Jackson that will culminate in a video artwork in the months to come, and the Museum recently purchased one of his punching bags, Sharecropper (2015). Both were made possible with funds from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation as part of the Museum’s Center for Art & Public Exchange initiative.
Like A Hammer features approximately 65 objects in a variety of media made since 2011. Wall hangings share space with large figurative sculptures, a collection of his trademark Everlast punching bags, paintings, and video. The exhibition, organized by the Denver Art Museum, makes powerful statements about mercurial identity and begs the question: how can our stories change, grow, and intermingle when we entrust them to a visionary teller? Gibson has a “unique ability to incorporate indigenous aesthetics with non-native influences to create something new without losing touch with the past,” says John P. Lukavic, associate curator of Native Arts at the Denver Art Museum.
“Like A Hammer features works from one of the most important periods of my career so far,” says Gibson. “The exhibition begins with artworks that I made just after nearly giving up making art altogether due to feeling misunderstood as an artist and struggling to establish a personal language that describes my experience without compromising it. The objects, sculptures, and paintings I’ve made since 2011 document this journey of establishing my own forward-looking voice influenced by all that has come before me.”
Jeffrey Gibson is showing the art world that everything is both more complicated and more accessible than they might have believed. A punching bag can be transformed from an object of aggression to one of beauty. Mississippi can be one’s home, just as Germany and London and New York can be. We all struggle, we all succeed, we all exist in our own enigmatic particularity, and yet we’re all the same.
READ PAGETURN VERSION: https://issuu.com/vervesouth/docs/verve___fall_2018/a/59742
Jeffrey Gibson: Like A Hammer is on view at the Mississippi Museum of Art September 8, 2018 – January 27, 2019. Learn more at www.msmuseumart.org.
Julian Rankin is the Managing Director of the Center for Art & Public Exchange at the Mississippi Museum of Art.