I still reflect fondly on the moment I understood painting as a three-dimensional object, rather than a two-dimensional surface. A simple epiphany that made art history feel new. It was as if someone removed my blindfold, and I could at long last see what the hell happened to painting over the last 80 years.
Shortly after I attained enlightenment, the artist Jeff Gibbons opened the show Boylet Toilet at Oliver Francis Gallery [RIP] in Dallas in the summer of 2012. The show consisted of a raw, stretched canvas attached to a system of rods and motors, via slots, to an adjacent space, which forced the canvas to violently jostle against a wall. I felt an immediate kinship. Gibbons’ work cemented itself in my mind forever that day.
Since then, the Dallas-based Gibbons has proven himself to be a cross-disciplinary artist in every sense of the word. Sculpture, video, sound, text… . He dabbles and samples at will. As a painter, I constantly talk myself out of doing things. I embrace my cowardice as a means of survival. Gibbons however, strikes me as completely fearless. A punk. Rudimentary skills coupled with enough spit and sweat to hold something together. He effortlessly balances slapstick humor and poetry, stoner thoughts and deep introspection. His objects have teeth, and they stick with you.
Since that summer of 2012, I’ve been on one side of the fence — toiling away, steeped in the history of paint, and burdened and challenged by it. But I see Gibbons on the other side, and that grass is definitely green. But I can’t make myself hop the fence. I’ve gained such an intimacy and familiarity with my patchy, weed-infested lawn over the years. My sense of loyalty won’t let me abandon this thing that feels so full of potential and yet almost dead, clinging to life, and constantly disappointing.
This month, September 2019, in the project space at Conduit Gallery in Dallas with an exhibition of paintings titled Planet Sandwich, Jeff Gibbons hopped over to my side of the fence. The conversation that follows is my attempt to figure out just what possessed him to do such a thing.
Benjamin Terry: Have you ever painted before?
Jeff Gibbons: I’ve never mixed a color until a couple months ago. You know what I mean? [Points at older work around the studio, which reference painting.] That’s ash and fabric softener and cardboard. This is clay and fabric. They just kind of happened. But these paintings were like — okay, I’m going to paint. I’m going to paint on a surface with brushes and mix the colors and choose those things instead of just letting them be whatever they are, which is normally what I would do or have done.
BT: It’s a different language for sure.
JG: For me, I’m always just interested in something. In this case it was just like: What do paintings look like when I make them? Cause I don’t know what that is, and I’ve always had this aversion to doing them because of the weight of paint. It was funny to me that during this show people would say something to me like “Oh, you’re a good painter.” Whether it was true or not — whatever. But no one says that about my sculptures ever. “Oh, you’re a good sculptor.” “Oh wow, you’re good at using that tape.” “Oh, you’re good at making that thing move.” You know what I mean? That’s never really been a thing. Where all of a sudden with the paintings, there’s this craft aspect that’s just interwoven into it. And I think that’s interesting. And maybe partly why I didn’t really do it much.
As much as you want to make painting like sculpture or make painting whatever else, it’s always still had this quality that’s carried with it a lot of stuff. Even a sculpture still feels like a piece of furniture or something. But a painting is always a thing that goes on a blank wall and has more of a purpose in a weird way, and it’s judged differently.
BT: You had a narrative that guided the paintings?
JG: It’s actually the other way around. The language of trying to describe the paintings was tricky. I just started painting. The process was like… doing something to the board and then just being with it, and it would grow from there. Sometimes just looking at it. Seeing something in a shape somehow. In a brushstroke. That would guide it somewhere. Why they were characters? To me it was just like this apophenic thing. Looking at the clouds and finding a bunny. Similar to that.
Sometimes it would be like: do something. And then see that this looks like a sky. So I’ll massage the sky. But then it’s like, what’s in the sky? And then that was a different kind of process. They’re all actually a little different. Sometimes things are a little repeated. Sometimes they have a different surface. The textures of the paint are different because I was playing with that specifically. Sometimes I had this palette of color and I’m just smooshing paint around. So I was just trying all of these different things because I’ve never done it before. I didn’t really have a big interest on honing in on anything. But because I’m jumping around trying different stuff, I’m just honing in on painting, maybe.
BT: How important is the story to the paintings?
JG: I don’t think it’s important at all. I was thinking of [the paintings] like photographs. It’s like: there’s your grandpa. Then there’s a photograph. And the photograph is precious because it’s a photograph of your grandpa. But of course it’s not your grandpa.
That’s what the paintings are. That’s what all objects are. It is this meaningful thing. But it’s not ever the thing. The story I’m writing. It’s also not grandpa. It’s just another version of the photograph.
BT: In the sculptures, there’s an idea that guides the materials. It doesn’t necessarily happen from you playing with materials, then having a discovery about what it is. But that’s how it happens with the paintings?
JG: It’s kind of all different ways. Sometimes it’s — I need to make this thing so I’m going to make it out of clay or paper or concrete. You pick the thing and you do the thing and the idea comes first. Sometimes it’s just having shit around that just sits there. If it’s in this space then it’s in my head. And if it’s in my head then eventually some idea marries to that somehow. Or maybe another object comes in and I am reacting off of that object based on this other thing. Sometimes it happens super fast, and sometimes it takes years. There really is no one way. I try to be conscious of those things. Part of what’s alluring about making art in the first place is how it’s a catch-all for doing all of these different things. I like throwing wrenches in my systems.
BT: Can you do things with painting that you couldn’t do with sculpture?
JG: Something I realized while painting — something that made me understand why some people gravitate to painting of all the different sorts of art making — I think it’s because it offered much more of a flow experience than any other form of making.
BT: Can you explain flow experience?
JG: It’s like in sports. Like when you’re doing something that’s challenging and that you’ve practiced a lot for. And then when you go to do the challenge, you’re just doing it, and you’re immersed. You’re hyper-focused. It’s a challenging thing that you’ve gained a skill in order to do. And you can lose yourself in it to some degree.
If I’m doing a sculpture, unless I’m drunk and rummaging through things, I don’t feel like I’m having a flow experience. But painting was a little bit more like that. Because I’m engaged. And it’s meditative in a way. I found myself working in a way that’s like, spread, and then it just gets tighter and tighter and tighter until I’m just using this brush that has a few little hairs left, and I’m having to hold my hand because I drank a ton of coffee. Doing this fine little line work. Like a little finger. Things that take a long time. There was something kind of nice about that. That made me feel good. I felt really good while I was making them.
While I’m doing it, I just couldn’t stop being, like: I love making these things; this is fun. A lot of times with the sculptures I’ll be working on lots of things at the same time but they’re spread out over this period, and I never know what the hell I’m going to be doing. But with the painting it was always: There’s my painting station; this is my paint.
BT: Do you find yourself being self-conscious when you’re painting?
JG: No, not while I’m doing it. I mean, well, yeah — all of the time. I definitely know that I need to make stuff. Whatever that is. Whatever form that is to me is based around my life. I make music. I do all of these things. I’ve never had a big interest in doing [just] one of those things. And a lot of times it feels like a major detriment. I highly respect people that have the one thing. They have some goal.
I think that’s partly the thing with me. I don’t really have goals. In a lot of ways, goals are a tricky conundrum. They’re problematic in a way. But I still want those, and try to put them in place. I want to make a movie. I want to write a book. And I want to do all of these things. And I work on those things. And I try. And I buy a nice camera. And I make a small movie. And I don’t like it enough, so no one will ever see this one thing, but maybe a part of it will become something else.
I feel green as hell. It’s like trying to make a movie or writing a book. I write the book, but I’ve had this intense critique around making sculptures. And I’ve had all this education around that. But I’ve never been able to write a piece of fiction and have a group of people read it and tell me what they really think. So there’s this hesitance. I’m super-green. Like making the movies, I don’t feel confident. But it’s like anything else. I took the time to go to school to make the sculptures. So if I’m going to make the movies and I really want to, then I’m just going to have to get un-green.
To me the studio situation — I really want it to be private so I have that room. I want to be able to have years and years of room. I hate the idea of making something and immediately throwing it out there or posting it. The paintings were sort of like that. It was just this mode. This thing all of a sudden became this intense obsession of doing something. I just hit it hard and fast and wanted it.
Every time I painted something, it’s just what I was thinking and feeling and doing that day. And that’s just what it was. There’s real-life reasons why every color was chosen and every interaction was done. I’ve always really liked the idea of what happens when you do that, and then construct it into something that allows it to exist and doesn’t break down those hidden ghosts that are inside of it all. Just not caring so much, because I like the idea of making some art.
That’s always what I really wanted to do in the end. I make whatever, and I like the idea of making art. And what I mean by that — I talked to my dad about a month before I started painting, and I asked, “What’s art to you?” And he said, “Artists make what they love, and people who love it and want to look at it buy it and have it.” And I just thought, damn that’s beautiful.
BT: Did you get better at painting as you went along?
JG: Yeah, definitely. I look at the earlier ones and I’m like… pffft.
Jeff Gibbons’ show ‘Planet Sandwich’ is on view at Conduit Gallery, Dallas, through October 12, 2019.