No two viewers will walk away from Jeffrey Gibson’s Like a Hammer with exactly the same experience. This is perhaps a truism of all art, but in Gibson’s case it feels intentional. You don’t have to “get” every individual reference to be wowed by the whole. The recently-announced Whitney Biennial participant is a conceptual artist in love with material. Thousands of beads and paint on rawhide reference “the first abstract artists in America-” indigenous women. Gibson is a member of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians and of Cherokee heritage, and he layers all of his aesthetic and cultural references generously. For Like A Hammer, the artist has created a kind of gumbo of new associations, igniting things as disparate as old song lyrics and ab-ex white-boy modernism and indigenous craft with the most vital and urgent of sensations. You have to travel up several escalators in the museum’s labyrinthian building to reach the exhibition, but don’t let that keep you away.
If you choose to view this exhibition through the lens of a music fan, you will find the lyrics of Stevie Wonder and James Brown, Black Flag and LCD Soundsystem, a playlist that streams endlessly through your brain as you pick apart Gibson’s layering of lyrics on abstract paintings and his most well-known works- a series of beaded Everlast punching bags. These lyrics are words we know, they flow through us like water, bouncing along on simple melody. Built permanently into a punching bag or a static wall work, they take on new and sometimes sinister meanings. YOU CAN FEEL IT ALL OVER switches tone from an infectious urge to dance to an indictment of our nation’s treatment of the indigenous people Gibson references with his beading technique. We are struck with the horror of empathizing with the object punched rather than the one doing the punching.
Along these lines, you can view Like A Hammer from a sociopolitical point-of-view. Gibson cites the Black Lives Matter movement and queer club culture as formative influences in this body of work. The JB of Gibson’s heavily fringed, beaded wall piece titled American History (JB) is noted mid-century activist and writer James Baldwin. In blocky letters, Baldwin’s quote reads “American history is more beautiful and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it,” a multi-faceted statement that the artist proves through his filter-feeder-like assortment of cultural touchstones.
Approach this exhibition as a fan of modern art, and you will find parallels to the op-art of Richard Anuszkiewicz in paintings like Frequency. But the formal lushness of works like this one seems to float eerily on top of Gibson’s rawhide substrate. These are paintings literally built on the backs of unacknowledged others. A hot-pink neon tube a la Dan Flavin is sheathed like an arrow in a quiver. It’s always been a lie that the white walls and primed canvases of American modernism were without context-pure objects to be evaluated solely on their aesthetic merit-but Gibson points to this fact without malice. We should have known it all along because it was right there for us to see. These works simply state a fact, a thesis proclaimed in vinyl at the exhibition’s entrance: I AM ALIVE/ YOU ARE ALIVE/ WE ARE ALIVE/ THEY ARE LIVING.