John Gibbons

Catalogue Text, 2006-2008

2007

'Light'

Winchester Cathedral, Winchester

ISBN: 978-0-90,3346-37-5

Curated by, John Gibbons

'Light': A total Installation

Rod Mengham

The setting for this exhibition is infused not only with the exact ratio of light and shade predominant on any given day, but with more than nine hundred years of thinking about the meaning of light in sacred space.  The history of architecture attributes the birth of Gothic to the reconstruction of the east end of the Abbey of Saint-Denis in 1144, when Abbot Suger authorised a design that transformed the relationship between church architecture and light.  His innovation was the creation of a ‘crown of chapels, because of which the entire church would brilliantly shine with the remarkable and uninterrupted light of the dazzling windows illuminating the interior beauty.’  A century and a half later, William Durandus wrote his Rationale Divinorum Officiorum (1286), the most influential of all medieval treatises on the symbolic meaning of churches and church ornaments.  This codifies the importance of light in the Gothic cathedral, and accounts for the symbolic meaning of its physical presence there: ‘the glass windows in a church are Holy Scriptures, which expel the wind and the rain, that is all things hurtful, but transmit the light of the true Sun, that is God, into the hearts of the faithful.  These are wider within than without, because the mystical sense is the more ample, and precedes the literal meaning.’  Written in the late thirteenth century, Durandus’s text is effectively a practical manual for churchmen, but it is based on ideas whose most sophisticated philosophical treatment had been given in the text De Luce, written by the Englishman Robert Grosseteste around the time of the rebuilding of Saint-Denis.    

We think of light as intangible, without substance, and yet, according to Grosseteste, it is ‘the first corporeal form’, the very means by which matter comes into being and takes on form: ‘for the form cannot desert matter, because it is inseparable from it, and matter itself cannot be deprived of form’. No wonder light features in the history of art as a creative force, associated more with spirit than with matter, seeming to come from a source beyond the world of objects that it reveals.  Grosseteste has an explanation for the unique status of light in our perception and understanding of the world: ‘the first corporeal form is…more exalted and of a nobler and more excellent essence than all the forms that come after it… It has moreover greater similarity than all bodies to the forms that exist apart from matter, namely, the intelligences.’          

Light is undoubtedly a part of the physical world and yet it seems to enter the world through divine or angelic agency.  This is one reason why the medieval builders sought to use light as an element of architecture in the great cathedrals.  At Winchester, the cathedral encompasses both Romanesque and Gothic building styles and exemplifies the architectural importance of light in the design of its arcades, galleries and clerestories and in its use of stained glass.  Light is a malleable medium that can be channelled, relayed, absorbed, reflected and refracted. ............

The smooth, polished whiteness of Whiteread’s composition could not be further removed from the distressed complexity of the surface of John Gibbons’s aptly named ‘Presence’.  Virtually every part of this highly concentrated work has been milled and abraded to produce a swirling, rippling pattern that entangles and confuses light.  Even slight movement on the part of the viewer circling round this sculpture will trigger a release of visual energy.  But energy does not merely skid across its surface; it has been recruited in a tremendous effort of containment.  The welds and patches that hold this work together seem to have enclosed a source of power that presses against its confinement in a way characteristic of many of Gibbons’s works.  The elevation and dimensions of the work evoke the origins of monumental sculpture in many traditions, particularly the Egyptian and Greek, and the tension between abstraction and figuration recalls the compactness of expression of the Cycladic bronze age.  This amalgamation of the archaic and the contemporary seems to place the work in a modernist tradition of the kind sponsored by Wilhelm Worringer in Abstraction and Empathy (1908), a text that relegated sentimental Romanticism in favour of the austere impersonality of ancient devotional art.  If nineteenth century sculpture was an art of empathy, of identification with aspects of the human condition, with impermanence and frailty, its twentieth century successor was to focus on what exceeded individual human experience, on the kind of unknowability traditionally associated with the divine. If Gibbons’s brooding stela invites any form of identification, it is of the kind associated with totemic objects that give a visual form to an unseen presence, a spirit that forms the basis simultaneously of a belief system and a social system, as if the two could not be thought of separately.

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'Sculpture in the Close 2007'

Jesus College, Cambridge

ISBN 0 9529665 4 9

John Gibbons

Rod Mengham

Two of the three works that John Gibbons has included in this exhibition come from the ‘Presence’ series of brooding metal orthostats.   (A third is currently on show in the exhibition, ‘Light’, in Winchester Cathedral.) Virtually every part of these highly concentrated works has been milled and abraded to produce a swirling, rippling pattern that entangles and confuses light.  Even slight movement on the part of the viewer circling round these sculptures will trigger a release of visual energy.  But energy does not merely skid across their surfaces, it has been recruited in a tremendous effort of containment.  The welds and patches that hold everything together seem to have enclosed a source of power that presses against its confinement in a way characteristic of much of Gibbons’s output.  The elevation and dimensions of the individual works evoke the origins of monumental sculpture in many traditions, particularly the Egyptian and Greek, and the tension between abstraction and figuration recalls the compactness of expression of the Cycladic bronze age.  This amalgamation of the archaic and the contemporary seems to place the work in a modernist tradition of the kind sponsored by Wilhelm Worringer in Abstraction and Empathy (1908), a text that relegated sentimental Romanticism in favour of the austere impersonality of ancient devotional art.  If nineteenth century sculpture was an art of empathy, of identification with aspects of the human condition, with impermanence and frailty, its twentieth century successor was to focus on what exceeded individual human experience, on the kind of unknowability traditionally associated with the divine.  If Gibbons’s rearing stelae invite any form of identification, it is of the kind associated with totemic objects that give a visual form to an unseen presence, a spirit that forms the basis simultaneously of a belief system and a social system, as if the two could not be thought of separately. 

The narrow bands of colour that encircle the two ‘Presence’ sculptures seem manufactured and lacking in nuance.  Their machine-made character expresses perhaps the insufficiency of humanity’s attempts to harness and contain those sources of power and energy—literal and metaphorical—that remind us of the limits of our skill and knowledge, our precisely technological stance towards the world.  The bright pigment applied to ‘First Moment’ achieves a similar effect, acting paradoxically as a form of camouflage, making the sculpture blend into a postmodern aesthetic environment that attempts to draw the meanings of the work up to the surface, denying its interiority.  The form of Gibbons’s sculpture seems to propose exactly the opposite.  Its curious lobes seem to have been extruded under the intense pressure of a hidden agency, an internal or subterranean force capable of transferring energy into form: a reminder, in the shape of a work of art, of the primary creativity of a ‘first moment’ to which the history of all human making has remained secondary.