Clive Phillpot Talking Pictures
Sometimes it is as if Jeff Gibbons’ paintings are talking to us, talking back to us, rather like the painting in Ad Reinhardt’s cartoon at which a spectator scoffs: “Ha Ha. What does this represent?”, and which responds assertively with “What do you represent?”
These pictures confront you, and some of them talk to you. Talk at you. Even the wordless ones stab at you with a metaphorical finger. They are very direct, yet they are in essence abstract, just like Reinhardt’s picture. Paradoxically these wordy pictures actually cause one to reflect on dumbness: what does it mean to be dumb and be obliged to write down one’s exclamations instead of declaiming them? Then again, as well as relating to wordiness, or the lack of it, dumbness also relates to technique in painting. Some of Gibbons’ paintings are silent; some are wordy but dumb; yet all the paintings are dumbly, if cleverly, painted. It is as if there has been a union of the flower pieces of Odilon Redon with Philip Guston’s late work, just as earlier work by Gibbons suggests a coming together of late Guston with the still lifes of Morandi.
Jeff Gibbons locates the origin of this series to the time when he was listening to a talk by Luc Tuymans, who said in passing: “What could be more stupid than painting flowers.” Gibbons’ quick response was: “I felt it the best thing to begin painting flowers.” And yet, he calls this exhibition “NOT flowers.” (First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain.)
Other artists have combined words with images. Those that have done this in a painterly way include Robert Motherwell and Cy Twombly. The words that Twombly, for example, frequently seeds into his pictures, generally have the function of illuminating the scrawled narratives embodied in the canvases. But it is the non-painterly words included in many of René Magritte’s paintings that are perhaps closer in function to Gibbons’. For example Magritte’s words in a painting that tells us that what we think we are looking at is not a pipe, evoke the title of Gibbons’ exhibition of flower paintings: “NOT flowers”.
The flowers in this series are surprisingly various, given that a stick and a circle or two are often all that is required to suggest their forms. Some of this variety is, however, on account of the shapes of their vases and other containers, while colour is particularly important too. One might consider them pictograms of flower arrangements, even if ‘arrangements’ is an over-optimistic description of the ensemble. These are no ikebana. Indeed many of the flowers seem to be in urgent need of a drink.
Pictograms are often basically two-dimensional, and it is true that these paintings are often flat. However, Gibbons is a real painter, and even in the most diagrammatic of these pictures seemingly dumb brushwork can suggest quite subtle forms, depths and atmosphere. Even the starkest mark-making of his technique is expressed in appealingly smudgy paint, which adds to the organic quality of the total image. And, despite the words and the talking back, what stays in the mind after seeing the paintings are the fairly simple forms and the way that they are often enhanced by vivid colour harmonies when a brushstroke of green, for example, is laid against a brushstroke of red. But the pictures also emphasize the space that surrounds the flowers in these wonky near-rectangular pictures. This positive charge given to the plane of the canvas by the daubed forms also has affinities with a child’s mode of painting. One could almost say that some of these works are innocent. Furthermore the ragged edges of the canvases echo a certain raggedness in the daubing of the surface: but although shapes may be stubby, they are also organic.
I see only one question mark in this series of paintings. Perhaps I have overlooked another one, but this only encourages me to make the assertion that question marks are conspicuous by their absence. Yet all these paintings pose questions with their child-like directness and their dumb technique. Try adding a question mark to any of the phrases or words on their surfaces. Try adding one to any of the canvases without words. What are they asking? What do they represent? Are they part of the currency of our times?
Images with associated words are an inseparable part of our wrap-around environment, from billboards to magazines to television to the internet. Many of Gibbons’ paintings suggest reactions to this world and to advertising and labelling in particular. His responses question the certainty of public visual announcements. A bottle accompanied with the words ‘Not/no/yes/yes/no/’/not’ is hardly the punchy communication desired in advertising. Just as the phrase ‘There is no point in being here’ (from the painting ‘Seven Last Words’) will hardly encourage consumers to spend, spend, spend.
Some of the paintings may appear to be throwbacks to an earlier time, like the work that is basically little more than the signature ‘J. P. Gibbons’ (‘Heavy Weather’). This looks rather like the enlarged detail of a painting by, say, Courbet, in an art historical tome, but this enlarged signature also suggests not only a child’s proud attempt at an adult signature, but the underlining of a certain authenticity. Or is it as inauthentic as the multiple signatures ‘Arth. Guinness’ on countless bottles of stout - authenticity for our times?
While these pictures each have their position in a compelling series, they also benefit from being considered individually. If the picture ‘It’, for example, was hung by itself on a wall, what would it say, beyond ‘It’? The painting would communicate a pleasure in colour and the application of paint, but would also convey the satisfaction inherent in the building of the architecture of an image. This particular painting is made less literal by the overlaying of the white word ‘It’ and the smudged possibilities of more white words alongside and above. What are we looking at? Could this painting be a rendering of a detail of an advertisement in a magazine? Probably not. But the overlaying of the word challenges the image and renders it more illusory. Where exactly is the word? Is it in a plane that floats over the composition? Is it actually on the vase? Does it fit into the plane of the painting like a piece in a jigsaw?
In the painting ‘No All’ we cannot suggest this time that the words float over the composition. The strikingly simple application of paint and the use of colour pushes the words back; the vase is fore-grounded instead, together with the red buds, just by force of hue. The words here are fully integrated into the picture; indeed they are essential to the raggedy composition. Words and image add up to a compound unity, unlike It where there is ambiguity.
Another painting introduces yet another game with representation, for in Home is (green there is no union of word and image. This picture foregrounds the constituent words and integrates them into what appears to be an abstract pattern. Thus the viewer can take in the phrase without the conflict between object and words that often exists in these paintings. Not that Gibbons lets the viewer off the hook that easily, for how does the word “home” relate to “is (green”? There are, at the least, spatial complications here, as well as questions about the total phrase. Uncertainty rules.
Gustavo Grandal Montero Signific paintings
‘Basically, painting is pure idiocy’ (1)
‘Painting is beside itself’ (2)
I have known Jeff for a few years. Although I was aware of his work as a painter, it’s only recently that we started talking about it. At a dinner party at his house, I was intrigued by the label of a wine bottle, a beautiful black on blue silhouette. Jeff saw me looking at it and, with a smile, explained that he hated the original labels and had created these to replace them, featuring his profile (like any 18th century aristocrat would do, had they access to a laser printer). Sometime after this conversation, he showed a collection of silhouette works including drawings and objects, alongside the publication Negative Enthusiasm, in a small exhibition at Chelsea College of Arts Library.
The silhouette is closely related to the origins of Western painting, described by Pliny the Elder in Natural History as first developing by ‘tracing lines around the human shadow’. The series of drawings displayed at Chelsea featured distorted profiles of the artist as different types, both historical and contemporary (for instance, as a liar, with a very long nose, or a gangster, with a baseball hat facing backwards). The figure of the artist was further explored in badges and even tea mugs, hybrids of the artist’s multiple and branded merchandise, engraved with more conventional self-portrait silhouettes. The pamphlet Negative Enthusiasm re-purposes another 18th century genre, the artistic treatise, as a collection of self-portraits of the artist interleaved with philosophical statements on the practice of painting.
This exhibition presents Signific Landscapes, a new series of some thirty paintings (2013-14), figurative landscapes dominated by oversized signatures. Like other contemporary painters, Jeff often uses text in his paintings, as part of a critique of representation, but here these names and flourishes occupy the centre of the stage. The signatures are anagrams of the artist's name (sometimes inverting/reversing letters): Bob Gusi J.P., J. Oddgusi, B.B. Gions, J. Snobigg, J. Nobiggs, Jeff Bobsing, Spin Gob, Roberto Gusi, P.J. Gin-Sobb, Sin Gobb, N. Bigsob, Sig. J. Bond, Snigbob, Bignobs J., J. Bogsbin, SN Jobbig, Poggibonsi, J. Obbsnig, B.B. Jogsin, N. Big-Jobs, No Gibbs, Paul Geoff Jibbns… and also Gibbons J. and Jeff Gibbons.
The meaning of the term 'signific' is to act as a sign or signal. Rather than identifying or authenticating provenance, the over-careful, ornate but awkward writing, stretched across the whole canvas, is used as sign of appropriation: the painter as an amateur, clumsily but sensitively rendering landscape views influenced by Delacroix, Turner, Redon, etc. Different palettes are at work here, phoneyism side by side with nostalgia, like Snigbob's pastel blues and pale browns.
Objecthood is another concern in this calculated, philosophical work. The paintings are displayed unframed and unstreched, stapled to the walls, like with previous series. Painting history, particularly Romantic and other 19th and 20th century landscape traditions, is negotiated with borrowed innocence and corny humour. The artist as a circus weightlifter. A fake one, of course.
1.Gerhard Richter in conversation with Irmeline Lebeer, cited in: Crimp, D. (1981) ‘The end of painting’, October, no.16, p. 73
2.Joselit, D. (2009) ‘Painting beside itself’, October, no. 130, p. 134
John Welch Words and Pictures
An exhibition by Jeff Gibbons...…The work being shown is, unusually, not only unframed but unstretched, so that the loose pieces of canvas are simply pinned to the wall. All these works incorporate words, slogans, sentence fragments or whatever. What is the ‘meaning’ of words in a painting, and what is the space they occupy? PAST PAIN TING is one the space after PAIN is intended and there’s the way the paint ‘flows’ into becoming a sort of landscape. Casual but so well judged, that swirl of red as if it were a single movement briefly interrupted by a sort of table-horizon and on it the bottle with two glasses, constituting an invitation? This horizon is the paint flowing down there, or coming from up there?
There’s a work of his from an earlier show that I now have, titled ‘Wordsworth’s Cupboard’; a small cupboard in the top left-hand corner, and a sofa and it does look extraordinarily sofa-ish especially when glimpsed suddenly out of the corner of your eye or in the half light first thing in the morning. But it also contrives to look like something else - a car , one of those old fashioned American cars perhaps, the arms of the sofa being the wheels.
In this embodiment it is moving away from me, driving off into the distance? As sofa it is definitely facing towards me. So it is on a sort of hinge of being; towards/away, one thing or another, but in the end more its title (what is it entitled to be?), yet still some hesitation in the matter, this other possibility of being that moves perpetually away.
Like PAST PAIN TING it has a calligraphic quality, a single movement of the brush across the canvas. A thing about this line is that it is impossible to work out where it begins or ends, it just is. There is the way the space enclosed by the line is absolutely flat, a blankness about it, no hint of shaping or shading, the line just a squiggle on a torn piece of cloth (the canvas is torn in one corner). At times it has a crumpled appearance as if collapsing into itself while the sofa has a pictographic quality, suggesting a Chinese character. The character is a sign, the distance between sign and what it stands for, between signifier and signified being what makes it a sign of course. But the object still hovers behind it like a ghostly imprint. Allied to that quality of the glimpse is a mysterious balance - this ‘character’ has filled up with something. So this is the trick of it, this doubleness.
‘Too Loud to Hear’, another work of his and again the words are part of the painting. Is it the ‘big bang’ perhaps that reaches to here, ending in the absolute silence of a painting? Not only is this unframed, the piece of cloth on which it is painted has been glued down onto a stretched canvas and on one edge a piece of the torn cloth protrudes very slightly making it look like a remnant of something. Which takes me back to the exhibition at Artspace and these scraps of painted cloth. If you buy one, what to do with it? When I was there the gallery owner was proposing a ‘solution’ to a rather worried-looking young couple. (I can’t remember what the solution was.) But what does it mean to ‘frame’ a painting? Jeff made the point to me that canvas is very tough. Sacred relics have to be ‘framed’ of course, encased in a specially made box, a reliquary, not just tacked to the wall like this. It’s as if there’s something that is always on the point of slipping away. Is that why we ‘frame’ it, as if it has to be trapped? There’s the ‘fetichistic’ aspect of painting-as-object, a form of idolatry, scraps of painted cloth that sell for unimaginable amounts. People have attacked this idolatrousness in various ways: by creating work where there is no object, merely a concept, or where it’s an empty space where it self-destructs. But time and again the object gets recuperated. The words in Jeff Gibbons’ paintings have a philosophical, sometimes even a religious flavour. Are they at an angle to this ‘idolatrous’ aspect, serving to both highlight and undermine it?
Jo Melvin Silence and Painting
Although words feature extensively in Jeff Gibbons paintings ironically I am often at a loss for what to say. Prolonged silence. Visual as well as tactile, layered sources combine to create the work. These are eclectic, from pop culture, especially music and chat shows, to painting’s past, architecture, philosophy, theology, death, deprivation, sex and religion. The novelist Aaron Appelfeld particularised the nuances of human generosity in the throes of despair with the distinction that ‘man is not an insect’.
The application of paint is like spew and it is strangely beautiful … it resonates despite the bleak character of much of the work. Alley, the large walk-in painting constructed from facing canvases forces the viewer’s proximity to painting’s physicality and substance, literally as well as metaphorically. One is led down the alley to a no-man’s land on the edge of culture where bad things happen, bones, brains and brief encounters, the phrases recall stand up comedy, ‘a mere pin let life begin’ or ‘doctors find no cure for death but are working on it’. Marks and images converse with painting’s language, especially the vanitas tradition, to make paintings about death and life’s smug vanity, the still life, nature morte, is brutal fact; the thin line between life and death is what these works insist upon.
Gibbons work demands reflection on the distinctive condition of looking and thinking about the action of looking at painting, ‘how to look at a painting’. There is no easy, fast response. Perceptually they are slow release. These paintings are not about the reassurance of making comfortable relations with the world. The condition of silence brings the possibility of accepting this kind of uneasiness.