“In 2011, I cut my old canvases with a razor,” says artist Jeffrey Gibson. “I wanted to wash the failure away.” The 46-year-old artist and Colorado Springs native has never quite felt like he “fits in” with the contemporary art world, despite having several arts degrees and a CV riddled with notable exhibitions of his sculptures and paintings.
Gibson grappled with his identity from an early age. He’s Native American—both Cherokee and Choctaw—but spent some of his childhood oversees, as his father worked in Korea and Germany. He fell in love with art, but found the contemporary art world restricting and marginalizing. When James Baldwin’s The Cross of Redemption came out in 2011, Gibson was inspired to take his art in a new civil rights direction, embracing his heritage. He repurposed his cracked, destroyed canvases into text-based wall hangings and textile canvas paintings, and began creating figurines and sculptures with this new vision and style. “I learned I could make new works that were both violent and beautiful, contemporary and indigenous,” he says.
The result of this artistic rebirth can be found in Jeffrey Gibson: Like A Hammer, a coalescing of nearly 60 of Gibson’s abstract sculptures, paintings, and prints from 2011 to present, which is on display at the Denver Art Museum’s Gallagher Gallery until mid-August. “With this exhibit, I have finally found a visual vocabulary to bring my unique voice into my art,” Gibson says.
When you enter Like A Hammer, the first piece you’ll see is “Late Fragments,” a large textile of his destroyed canvases, repainted and sewn together—a merging of old works to create something new, which is emblematic of his new artistic style. As you walk through the rest of the exhibit, you’ll notice the role that poetry and lyrics play in Gibson’s work. In fact, Gibson even created a Spotify playlist to accompany various sections. For example, “Sir Duke” by Stevie Wonder plays in a room filled with Everlast punching bags; one of the bags even has the song’s chorus—“You can feel it all over”—written in beading. To contrast the idea of a punching bag as an outlet for aggression, Gibson has repurposed the bags to look like traditional Native American clothing, adorned in beads and fringe.
You’ll also find several text-based wall hangings beaded with inspirational quotes. One rainbow-colored piece features a quote by one of his favorite authors, James Baldwin: “American history is longer, larger, and more beautiful than anything anyone has ever said.” The quote, paired with the piece’s bright fabric, beads, and black and white fringe, speaks to the recurring theme of Gibson’s exhibit—a look at American identity. “As an openly gay man of color, I connected with Baldwin and his powerful words,” says Gibson, “He inspired me to use art as a way of expressing my voice.”
Also on display are Gibson’s indigenous figurines, including the exhibit’s eponymous “Like a Hammer,” which is adorned in bright colors and crafted from materials such as Elk hide, wool blanket, pinewood block, fur, and more. Noticing how people of his Native American culture emotionally connect with ancient artifacts, Gibson wants each piece in the exhibit to act as a “futuristic artifact.” It’s a new form of art—one that simultaneously serves as a tribute to ancient cultural traditions and modern society.
If you go: The exhibit will be on display at Denver Art Museum through August 12. In 2019, it will travel to Mississippi Museum of Art, Seattle Art Museum, and Madison Museum of Contemporary Art.