“Jeffrey Gibson: This Is the Day” at the Blanton
The artist explores his indigenous roots and American identity in this solo exhibition
Reviewed by Barbara Purcell, Fri., Aug. 9, 2019
Jeffrey Gibson's "This Is the Day" is a rousing title that refracts into a question: This is the day ... for what? A diverse exhibition of 50-plus works ranging from paintings to punching bags, the solo show ties the artist's Native American heritage to modern American culture, resulting in a fantastically syncretic display of the sacred and the sequined.
As a child, Gibson moved around quite a bit, living abroad with his family (his father was a civil engineer), far from life on a reservation, more defined by his U.S. passport than his Choctaw and Cherokee background. Yet his role as an outsider forged a unique perspective on how cultures differ and overlap – including the complicated American narrative he came from.
"This Is the Day" begins with a series of indigenous wall hangings, many of which include various song lyrics that only become obvious after a few moments – everything from Eighties pop to "Amazing Grace." Gibson is having fun with synthesizing these somewhat random cultural references: The "JC" on his Love Supreme piece might just as easily stand for Jesus Christ as John Coltrane. Other wall hangings include more cryptic messages, like "In Such Times, Clowns Become Witnesses." The catchiest phrase emerging from these funky bead designs is "Look How Far We've Come," which shines bright with melancholic irony and makes me wonder once again: This is the day for what?
Gibson's abundant use of colorful materials, such as glass beads, vibrant fringe, and metal jingles, reinforces notions of traditional and tribal aesthetic, though more subtle details in his work (an image of a Google search bar, the Everlast boxing logo) reveal a darker subtext of capitalism and consumerism. This duality culminates in the back space with an impressive display of kimono-like garments known as ghost shirts suspended in air, their garishly tasseled arms outstretched as a collective welcome to visitors – garments which were traditionally worn by Native Americans during ceremonial dances to ward off the white man.
The 8-minute film toward the end of the show is not to be missed, with its hypnotically quotidian details taking us through the daily routine of a trans woman living on a Choctaw reservation in Mississippi. We watch her putting on makeup while getting ready for work with such quiet tenderness that it's easy to forget the pain in her truth and grace as she moves through a world which likely struggles to understand her. The film then shifts into an evocative nature scene, where the protagonist, garbed in a simple robe, glides deeper and deeper into the center of a lake, preparing for some kind of personal ritual which feels both baptismal and ominous. She disappears completely beneath the water's surface, as if pulled down by a weight, before rising back up moments later, along with the answer to the question: This is the day.
“Jeffrey Gibson: This Is the Day”Blanton Museum of Art, 200 E. MLK
Through Sept. 29