Emotional Rhythms: Jeffrey Gibson at Jessica Silverman

Multi-colored collage by artist Jeffrey Gibson featuring floral beadwork, colored pencil, water color paper, and vintage ephemera. Near the upper portion of the work it says: "HOW BEAUTIFUL YOU ARE" in geometric neon lettering
Jeffrey Gibson, HOW BEAUTIFUL YOU ARE, 2023.
Photo credit: Max Yawney and Phillip Maisel, Credit: Courtesy of the artist and Jessica Silverman, San Francisco

Tucked behind the main space at Jessica Silverman in San Francisco, there is an undisclosed auxiliary space that is easy to overlook but deserves your attention. Concurrent to the Issac Julien exhibition in the primary space, an intimate room acts as the temporary home of ONCE MORE WITH FEELING, Jeffrey Gibson’s first solo show with the gallery. The nine collages reference traditional Cherokee-Choctaw motifs drawn from Gibson’s heritage, incorporating beads, textiles, found images, and vernacular objects. 

In the titular work, Gibson wove the words “ONCE MORE WITH FEELING” in blocky, abstracted letters into the multimedia composition of electric red geometric patterns and collaged images. Gibson entwines his cultural history with North American popular culture, past and present, taking many of the works’ titles from iconic ballads like Joan Armatrading’s earnest 1976 love song “Love and Affection,” from which “Once More With Feeling” is borrowed. Gibson celebrates his queer identity by highlighting other LGBTQIA2S+ artists like Armatrading, a lesbian singer-songwriter whose lyrics have resonated with queer communities for decades. Song titles and lyrics show up as an aesthetic element of Gibson’s practice, acting as a nod to the comfort he has found in the music scene throughout his life. These playful, personal touches draw upon Gibson’s personality and interests, and forge a sense of community through referencing our shared popular culture. For me, recognizing certain phrases and lyrics brought me closer to the artist as a viewer, giving me an entryway to relate to him. 

Upon entering the gallery, the rubescent collages appear geometric and playful, embracing the spirit of modernism through daring experimentation. The sharp lines that divide the various mediums such as watercolor paper, beads, and paint blur and bleed into one another from afar to create a cohesive work. However, the true joy and meaning of Gibson’s work become apparent up close. In works such as I DON’T WANT TO LOSE YOUR LOVE (2023), meticulously beaded bluebirds and tree branches come into view, while compact tchotchkes like an arch-shaped silver charm or a vintage button capture the viewer’s imagination. These details showcase the thoughtfulness with which the artist composes his work, expertly juxtaposing fine detail and blazing vibrancy. 

Multi-colored collage by artist Jeffrey Gibson featuring glass beadwork, colored pencil, water color paper, and vintage ephemera.  There is triangular patterning radiating throughout the work. In geometric neon lettering "I DON'T WANT TO LOSE YOU" is spelled out.
Jeffrey Gibson, I DONT WANT TO LOSE YOUR LOVE, 2023.

Gibson embraces the tenets of modernism through his exploration of color and form, creating an art historical familiarity to his work. The cacophony of shapes in asymmetrical composition, that seem to both argue and blend together evokes the style of avant-garde painters like Morgan Russell, or perhaps a less rigid Mondrian. The repetition of triangles mimic a foundational and recognizable motif in Native American art at large. But at the same time, it reminds of modern architecture, which is known for its sleek lines and traditional form. He expresses a connection to modernism through his repudiation of history, mainly carried out through acts of reclamation. Native Americans have been relentlessly and parasitically exploited by colonizers, and Gibson gracefully addresses this truth through intentional reclamation. For example, SKOOKUM (2023) features a Skookum figurine, a collectible caricature figurine popularized in the early 20th century. These figurines were originally created  to emulate Chinook tribal members. The dolls were advertised as souvenirs for those visiting the United States Midwest, commercializing racist caricatures for profit. The figurine’s presence in this piece forces us to acknowledge a history of exploitation in US culture. 

Many of the works on view explore the concept of time. Gibson’s collage practice reflects the reconstruction of a whole from disparate pieces–a collective memory of sorts. TIME WILL TELL (2023) confronts the precarious and fleeting nature of time  head-on. Despite its relatively modest size of 23 x 19 inches, Gibson combines his notably intricate beadwork, lettering, and found objects to create a brazen assemblage work. Above the text that reads “TIME WILL TELL,” there is a beaded vintage brooch depicting an Indigenous person, in profile, wearing a headdress. Additionally, a wristwatch is embedded in this piece—a found object symbolizing the passage of time. The positioning of the brooch above the watch as well as the text speaks to Indigenous endurance despite incessant federal opposition. Once again, the use of a readymade object calls upon Gibson’s connection with modernity, as he repurposes a found object to give it new meaning. 

Multi-colored collage by artist Jeffrey Gibson featuring a "skookum" doll, colored pencil, water color paper, and vintage Native American ephemera. "SKOOKUM" is spelled out in dark geometric forms.
Jeffrey Gibson, SKOOKUM, 2023.

Named after George Michael’s 1990 hit single, PRAYING FOR TIME (2023) continues the theme of time. According to the exhibition text, this piece draws upon the work of Elbridge Ayer Burbank, a 19th century artist commissioned to create ethnographic images of Native Americans who were considered to be “on the verge of extinction” at the time. The borders of this watercolor collage are punctuated by warmly-colored stripes that fade into black.The portraits within this collage are appropriated from Burbank’s series, obscured by a haze of acrylic paint causing the figures to be just visible enough to be distinguishable. These images are small in relation to the collage as a whole, compressing and limiting the way we see the central figures. Regardless of these barriers to viewing, these images shine through and insist on being discerned. Despite Burbank’s doctrine of the “dying race,” Gibson’s work is proof of Indigenous perseverance.

Multi-colored collage by artist Jeffrey Gibson featuring glass beadwork, colored pencil, water color paper, and vintage ephemera. Amongst appropriated portraits of Indigenous people in the 19th century, "PRAYING FOR TIME" is spelled out geometric neon lettering.
Jeffrey Gibson, PRAYING FOR TIME, 2023.

ONCE MORE WITH FEELING conveys Gibson’s capacity to use collage as a medium to disrupt the past and envision a bright future. The iconoclastic practice of breaking down an object or image into pieces and putting them back together both allows for the refusal of old ideas and the creation of new ones. Gibson’s collages do both. I left the gallery both reflecting on US history and asking myself what comes next. 

Jessica Silverman, San Francisco, CA
June 1–July 22, 2023

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