Hide-covered concrete blocks are not the most convenient pieces of art to exhibit all the way across a continent. New York-based artist Jeffrey Gibson avoided the shipping and potential customs hassles by making his contribution to the Fiction/Non-fiction exhibit, which opens Friday, Sept. 27 at the Esker Foundation, at the Illingworth Kerr Gallery at ACAD, while he was stationed there for two weeks in August. He sat down with Swerve Going Out Editor Jon Roe to talk about why he uses deer hide and how he came around on minimalism.
You’ve used deer hide quite a bit in your works. Are you a hunter? No, no. Our supplier is in Washington State. We’ve been using them for a few years. Most of the hides do come from hunters. They also come through the meat industry.
Why do you keep coming back to that material? I had some experience working in the graphic collections at the Field Museum and Native American art is in their collection. Some time during the past four or five years, I started paying to looking at found objects as painting rather than as artifacts. Anything from painted shields, painted drums, painted tipi covers, robes—I started thinking of them as paintings, which was a big shift for me, because I always looked at them as (just) objects.
Then, I was preparing for an exhibition that happened in February 2012 in New York City. Part of the premise of the exhibition was to collaborate with more traditional Aboriginal artists than myself. I travelled to Winnipeg, to South Dakota, Oregon and Oklahoma. Especially in the Dakotas and in Winnipeg, I worked with a couple of artists that worked in rawhide. One, a drum maker, and one, who makes parfleche box, and containers and another one who tanned hide in a ceremonial process.
When the drums came in, I knew I was going to paint on them. That was the first time I painted on rawhide. It’s the most beautiful material to paint on. My work has always hovered between painting and sculpture. The hide—it’s sculptural. After many years of trying to work abstractly and also to position a viewer to look at it through the perspective of Aboriginal traditional work, the hide achieves that, very easily. When people look at it, they automatically look at it through the perspective of ethnographic history.
My audience is primarily non-Native, but the Native community has also been hugely supportive of me. It’s a hugely effective material. I also generally try to use materials that have inherent histories to them. I don’t think I like that the hides come from a commercial process, but it compels people to think about those questions about the meat industry or how hide is processed compared to a traditional process, which oftentimes is ceremonial.
What prompted that shift for you to think about found objects more as paintings? It came from many years of frustration. Most of my peers, and by that I mean in New York City, are not from a Native tribe. Often, I’m the only Native American person sitting somewhere. I grew up aware of all the histories and the objects themselves, but I didn’t have anyone I could share it with in a way that led towards talking about contemporary art. It was years and years of frustration, then it was a moment of things aligning themselves. I was looking at painters who were trying to express spirituality and animism in their paintings, like modern painters, non Native painters—anything from Kandinsky to Albers to Rothko. And suddenly, I paid attention to the geometric shapes that were being shared between all these different histories and how completely different the meanings were to the people who were making them. That eventually aligned everything—I could look at them similarly. It was still a shape, but it was assigned a different meaning and it came about through a completely different process and a different history. Then it was just a more conscious effort to look at them as paintings.
How will your 30 painted blocks be arranged at the Esker Foundation? They’re arranged in a very, very severe grid. There’s two feet between everything. They’re all the same orientation. There’s 15 blocks painted exactly the same and another 15 blocks painted exactly the same. In this grid, there’s one then the other, one then the other. They create this sort of checkerboard. They’re painted so that when you walk around all 30 of them, the shapes that are painted on them align.
What’s the reason behind laying them out like that? Some of the artists who I was originally very critical of were minimalist artists like Donald Judd and Dan Flavin. I took a trip to Marfa (Texas) in 2010. I was able to go to The Chinati Foundation (a contemporary arts museum in Marfa) and look at Judd’s work. I was really pretty blown away by it. I was very impressed by what kind of presence his multiples had in that space and how much space they really require in order to engage you as a viewer.
I had to come terms with the fact that I was probably envious of that position that he was able to occupy to create these more minimal installations and his importance as an artist. It’s not a position I’ve ever seen a Native person hold, especially with all the conversations that happen with Native artists. There tends to be so much responsibility; it can be very heavy to try and make something. Everything seems to be quite loaded and very didactic oftentimes. I wanted to escape that, I suppose. When I began to see the artifacts and contemporary painting and modern painting and look at them as paintings, and be able to look at them formally, and that they could hold the same space, that enabled me to consider how I could do that with the language I was already working with.
The way the cement blocks came about, I was collaborating with the traditional artists and I met with two brothers who were going to make parfleche trunks for me to paint on for an exhibition. For personal reasons, they were unable to complete them. So I was walking around Home Depot in Brooklyn and I saw these cement blocks. I was like, you know, these are kind of the size that I was thinking of. I thought, well, I can order hide and I can stitch it around these and have these blocks be sort of like building blocks that I can play with. That’s how the first ones came about. For the first exhibition, there wasn’t space to do 30. When I met Wayne Baerwaldt (the Illingworth Kerr Gallery’s curator), we were at my studio and he asked me if there were any ideas that I hadn’t been able to explore. I proposed this one and he thought it fit the exhibition.
(As far as the colour on the blocks), I’ve been working with this repetitive geometric language for a while now. I knew that I wanted them to be somewhat minimal, but that was decided in the two weeks I was in Calgary in August. It really had to do with trying to find a way that all 30 blocks would read as one sculpture, visually. I wanted to lessen the amount of painting on them. There’s a really beautiful translucency to the raw hide; when they’re lit, you’re going to see light bouncing through them. I didn’t want to cover them entirely. The most colour that you’ll see is when you’re looking at the installation from a diagonal perspective because you see a little bit of two sides and the top. I like that.
What’s the end result for the blocks? Are they coming back with you to New York? It’s a little bit up in the air. I know we have a very extended loan because they’re difficult to travel. We’re hoping that we find a home in Canada somewhere, whether it’s other exhibitions or if someone decides to bring it into their collection.
Fiction/Non-fiction: Friday, Sept. 27 to Sunday, Dec. 22 at Esker Foundation, 1011 9th Ave. S.E. Opening reception Friday, Sept. 27, 6-10 p.m. eskerfoundation.com. Hear an artist talk with Gibson on Saturday, Sept. 28 at Esker, 3:30-4:30 p.m. Register online.