by Alan GilbertNovember 16, 2018
Jeffrey Gibson’s “I AM A RAINBOW TOO”
If there ever was an ars poetica for house music, it might be the one articulated by Chuck Roberts that Larry Heard incorporated into a 1988 remix of his own groundbreaking single “Can You Feel It” (1986). Roberts’s proclamation is a nearly two-minute-long origin story delivered in sermonic fashion featuring a figure named Jack: “In the beginning there was Jack, and Jack had a groove.” Roberts describes house music being born with an utterance by Jack, just as the Judeo-Christian God named the world into being, before announcing: “And in my house there is only house music. But I am not so selfish because once you enter my house, it then becomes our house and our house music.” The slightly modified “Because once you enter my house it becomes our house” is one of many phrases derived from dance-music tracks that Jeffrey Gibson incorporates into the paintings, sculptures, and beaded weavings featured in his exhibition “I AM A RAINBOW TOO.” Some, such as “Last night a dj saved my life,” will be recognizable to casual dance-music listeners; others require deeper digging in the crates (or lots of googling).
Gibson’s exhibition title is also shared with its opening work, a series of seven small, square canvases in a horizontal row with the line “I am a rainbow too” painted on each of them in a variety of colors; the entire sequence begins in red and ends in purple—the colors of the rainbow (all works 2018). Beyond the notion of a sunny expansiveness, the immediate association here is with the rainbow flag of LGBTQ+ pride. Gibson may have a further reference in mind, given the musical sources for his paintings’ texts, as the words appear in Bob Marley’s “Sun Is Shining,” an early song distinguished by its speaker’s optimistic fusion with nature and offer to assist those in need, all praise to Jah. Gibson’s exhibition shares in this feeling of inclusion, even if other works of his—some of which are on display in his currently traveling mid-career retrospective, “Like a Hammer”—more directly address the situations of colonized and displaced peoples. At Sikkema Jenkins & Co., the painting SKIN perhaps comes closest to this, with its three horizontally conjoined panels painted separately in monochrome reds, yellows, and browns.
The phrases embedded in Gibson’s artworks are not always easy to decipher, even though they usually serve as the titles. The small letters for “I am a rainbow too” are stacked like blocks with only a word or two fitting on each line. Evoking Josef Albers’s experiments with color and using his own typeface, Gibson plays with similar shades so that the space around a letter is occasionally more immediately visible than the character itself, which causes the latter to blend with the bright, geometric abstractions filling the rest of the canvas. The exhibition’s larger square canvases can be equally challenging to spell out, and generally the more vibrant the composition, the more the words blur as image and text merge in the way that language and music do in songs meant to make the body move. Paintings that aim to distinguish background and foreground, such as WORK TO THE LIVE TO THE LOVE TO THE SLAVE TO THE RHYTHM (courtesy of Grace Jones), make the lyrics easier to decipher, like the bright background colors on social media posts. There’s no doubt that with their square dimensions and vivid color palette, Gibson’s paintings are very Instagramable.
Yet they have another dimension more difficult to replicate in quickly digestible social-media formats. Surrounding each canvas is precise and intricate beadwork derived from Native American traditions. These patterns are as colorful and abstract as the canvases they surround, but in separate frames. In other words, they don’t quite touch. This beading is done much more elaborately and extensively on the surface of a boxer’s heavy punching bag, two of which (from a larger series) hang from the ceiling. More clearly Indigenous in pattern and materials, including the use of fringe, these sculptural objects are metaphors for a body—and people—under assault, but perhaps also are a tool for learning how to fight back. It’s on one of these punching bags that the phrase “Last night a dj saved my life” appears. After all, the roots of house music are in the creation of alternative spaces for queer men of color to gather, dance, and celebrate each other. With SAY MY NAME, one of two beaded weavings mounted on canvas in the exhibition, Gibson has run a set of pronouns down the center in red cursive: “She, He, They, Ze, Her,” etc., ending in “We.” Names create, summon, and hail. Gibson’s gender-pronoun hopping reflects the fluidity in his work between Indigenous and Western, image and text, visibility and marginalization. The aesthetic and the social expand hand in hand.
- 1View of Jeffrey Gibson’s “I AM A RAINBOW TOO” at Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York, 2018. All images courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York.
- 2Jeffrey Gibson, I AM A RAINBOW TOO, 2018. Acrylic on canvas, glass beads and artificial sinew inset into wood frame, seven parts, 21.5 x 19 inches.
- 3Jeffrey Gibson, SKIN, 2018. Acrylic on canvas, glass beads and artificial sinew inset into wood frame, 21.5 x 55 inches.
- 4Jeffrey Gibson, WORK TO THE LIVE TO THE LOVE TO THE SLAVE TO THE RHYTHM, 2018. Acrylic on canvas, glass beads and artificial sinew inset into wood frame, 82 x 74 x 2.5 inches.
- 5Jeffrey Gibson, LAST NIGHT A DJ SAVED MY LIFE, 2018. Repurposed punching bag, acrylic felt, glass beads, metal jingles, artificial sinew, and nylon fringe, 82 x 20 x 20 inches.
- 6Detail of Jeffrey Gibson’s LAST NIGHT A DJ SAVED MY LIFE, 2018. Repurposed punching bag, acrylic felt, glass beads, metal jingles, artificial sinew, and nylon fringe, 82 x 20 x 20 inches.
- 7Jeffrey Gibson, SAY MY NAME, 2018. Glass beads, copper and tin jingles, steel and brass studs, and artificial sinew on repurposed trading post weaving and acrylic felt, mounted on canvas, 69 x 41.5 x 3 inches.
- 8Jeffrey Gibson, I DO NOT WANT WHAT I HAVEN’T GOT, 2018. Acrylic on canvas, glass beads and artificial sinew inset into wood frame, 82 x 74 x 2.5 inches.
VARIOUS LOCATIONS, Athens
UNIVERSITY ART MUSEUM AT CALIFORNIA STATE UNIVERSITY, Long Beach
POWER STATION OF ART, Shanghai
CHISENHALE GALLERY, London