John Gibbons

Catalogue Text, 1996-1997



The Whitworth Art Gallery, University of Manchester

Kettle's Yard, University of Cambridge

Published by Kettle's Yard, University of Cambridge

ISBN 0 907074 62 6

'From Form to Metaphor: John Gibbons' Sculpture'

Paul Moorhouse

'Forms in function are often not appreciated in their context except for their mechanical performance. With time and the passing of their function, and a separation of their past, metaphoric changes can take place permitting a new unity...' (David Smith)[1]

John Gibbons' earliest work dates from the mid-1970s, made while he was a student at St Martin's School of Art.[2] This was a period when Conceptual Art and the primacy of the Idea over the object seemed to a number of artists to have begun to flag. Consequently, among some students of Gibbons' generation there was a resurgence of interest in making a work of art. As this exhibition of recent work reveals, Gibbons' sculpture continues to be distinguished by an emphasis on materials and fabrication, and by an insistence on the physical character and presence of the works themselves. At the same time, however, his mature sculpture has always been powerfully allusive; his investigation and deployment of form invariably coloured by the capacity of certain shapes and compositions to evoke a range of associations and experiences in the viewer. The resulting dialogue between form and metaphor is an essential aspect of his work. It also defines one of Gibbons' principal artistic concerns: how to make abstract sculpture with a narrative, capable of expressing subject matter of a complex, empirical nature. The capacity of Gibbons' sculpture to transcend formal considerations is evident, for example, in 'The Awaiting' 1991-92. Essentially, the work is divided into two areas of unequal size. The first, a pen-like bars arranged in parallel. Within the space defined by these shapes there are five metal boxes apparently containers of some kind. A sense of storage, or even confinement, is implied in the way that the space is reinforced by horizontal barriers. The second area, an open walkway, runs alongside.This area gives the work a sense of real scale for it seems to invite us to occupy the sculpture physically. Certain details - the deliberate use of an industrial non-slip platform, and the handles on the boxes - confirm a sense of human involvement. Gibbons' use of these elements, whose function seems familiar, draws us into a relationship with the sculpture. We sense an underlying narrative in the suggestion of containment and access; and we seek clues in details woven into the structure: the provision of loops at the corners, the inconsistency of three yellow boxes and two black ones. The work rouses a sense of expectation, an impression confirmed by its title. Some human drama is implied - but what?

As this sculpture demonstrates: the metaphorical content of Gibbons' work remains enigmatic and open to interpretation by the viewer. Light can, however, be shed on its subject matter in a more general sense. Gibbons has commented that his sculpture is 'to do with the experience of being alive' and that one of his intentions is to use sculpture 'as a reflection on the nature of what it is to be human.'[3] An important aspect of his engagement with these issues is the significance which his work attaches to forms deriving from architecture. His interest in the evocative power of habitable constructions is long-standing. Born in 1949 in Ennis, County Clare, in Western Ireland, from an early age Gibbons was fascinated by the numerous castles, tombs, churches and ancient monuments in the local landscape. These structures were richly suggestive of Ireland's historic past. But his imagination was fired in particular by the evidence of a long vanished human presence which he found in their strategic positioning, ruined fabric, and mysterious interiors. To enter and occupy them, Gibbons found, was to be drawn into a context rich in implication. They recalled a world of containment and protection, power and control. Through these places he gained an awareness of the way interior, habitable space can resonate with human experience.

Using architectural form in a purely expressive, non-functional way is one of the central themes of Gibbons' sculpture. Closely linked with this approach has been his engagement with imagery relating to the human body. This subject can also be related to a vivid impression formed in his childhood. Around the age of six or seven he would sometimes sneak into the local mortuary, drawn by the fascination of seeing the corpses laid out there. Gibbons remembers being struck by the strange luminosity of the lifeless flesh. He was also moved by the profound silence and stillness of the figures, sensing the absence of whatever had animated them in life. In later years he rationalised this memory, coming to perceive the body as a container for that life-giving force. There is here an implied connection between, architectural space and a metaphorical space within the body. Both are seen as sites for human experience, and the notion of containment is common to both. These ideas have provided a framework for the development of Gibbons' art.

The figure has been one of Gibbons' main concerns since the outset. In 1971, while still a student at Cork School of Art, he was taken on as an assistant by the portrait sculptor Oskar Nemon. Gibbons worked in Nemon's studio in London until around 1975, mainly in the evenings and at weekends, and he regards the training he gained there as a crucial stage in his progress. Nemon gave Gibbons a grounding in the traditional skills of the sculptor. In addition to making armatures and modelling figures in clay, he also learned carving, casting, mould-making and enlarging. In many ways Nemon was a tough taskmaster and the demands he made on Gibbons to sharpen his visual sense were exacting.Through Nemon Gibbons came to appreciate the importance of detail. One of his tasks was to undertake the modelling of certain areas, such as hands, drapery or decoration. From the beginning he was made to realise that detail had to relate harmoniously to the entire sculpture. Each small element had to express the overall character of the piece. He also understood that attention to detail was not an isolated or subsidiary activity, but opened up ways of exploring a subject. When Gibbons' own work subsequently advanced beyond figuration, these principles continued to inform his thinking. An emphasis on fine detail and its relationship to the whole are among the main characteristics of his approach.

Around the time that Gibbons started working for Nemon he also had his first encounter with abstract sculpture; In summer 1971, the Tate Gallery mounted an exhibition of sculpture presented by Alistair (later Lord) McAlpine. This enabled Gibbons to study work by David Annesley, Phillip King, Tim Scott, William Tucker and William Turnbull among others. Despite his immersion in traditional sculpture, Gibbons responded whole-heartedly to these sculptors' elimination of recognisable subject matter and their insistence on abstract works as real objects - devoid of any illusionistic or subjective references. For Gibbons this was 'a breath of fresh air'. In particular he was impressed by the openness of many of the works. In place of mass and monumentality he now saw the way that space could be used.

From 1972 to 1976 Gibbons was a student at St Martin's School of Art where William Tucker was one of his teachers. For most of this time Gibbons continued to work for Nemon and in his earliest works there is evidence of these twin influences. 'Untitled 7' 1973 could hardly be further removed from conventional figure sculpture. Instead of modelling and mass, Gibbons has emphasised the linear, constructed nature of the piece and the way its constituent parts enclose space. Even so, there is an echo of Gibbons' concurrent concern with the figure. Reflecting his growing confidence in making armatures, the work stands squarely on the ground, its diagonal elements like parted legs, defining and occupying the space with authority.

Through Tucker Gibbons came to know Anthony Caro's work. In 'X.1', made the following year, Caro's influence is clear in his development from wood to steel and in the stacked '1' beams in the bottom half of the piece. The precarious balance of shapes above s, however, a surprising and distinctive invention. Gibbons' concerns again seem rooted in finding an abstract equivalent for issues relating to the representation of a figure: the actions of sitting and rising, gravity, and the relation of limbs.

Gibbons has described his time at St Martin's as a search for a formal language. Significantly, he does not regard his parallel involvement with Nemon as incompatible. Despite working in two different idioms - one figurative, the other abstract - he felt that the same problems applied. Prominent among these was how to make the piece believable, coherent and 'real'. When he subsequently worked as an assistant to Caro in the late 1970s he found a similar preoccupation with creating works which have a cogent identity. Figurative or abstract, the work still had to be convincing in its own right.

Two works completed around the time he was working for Caro demonstrate his continuing need to find a language appropriate to his own concerns. 'The Dream' 1977-78 is an effective evocation, in abstract terms, of a figure in movement. The work recalls Rodin's treatment of this theme in 'The Walking Man' 1877-78. But despite paring the subject down to its essentials, Gibbons' solution is still relatively literal. In contrast 'After Midnight', completed around the same time, marks a new way of working in which formal and metaphorical issues are combined. Here the presence of a figure is not so much represented as implied in the suggestion of a table. On this surface are positioned various pieces: as if a sculpture has been deconstructed or a table has been laid out for a meal. There is also the sense of a craftsman arranging on a work bench the tools and components for the job ahead.

Gibbons' progress towards a more allusive evocation of the human body was given momentum by a change in his working practices. In 1978 his studio in Stepney Green was demolished and for a short while he was unable to work in steel. During this period he resorted to making a number of small-scale pieces in lead. The contrasting character of this material necessitated a different approach and it produced some radical developments.

Responding to the softness and malleability of lead, some of the new pieces were amorphous and squashed in appearance. Others had a folded or wrapped look, as if some hidden object were enclosed in the folds of metal. When Gibbons was once more able to work in steel he pursued these changes in his familiar material. 'Parisian Wrap' 1978 and 'South Wish' 1980 announce the theme of containment. Made by using heat directed at the metal, 'Parisian Wrap' comprises a square block of steel partially covered by a skin of metal. The corner of the block protrudes and at its base a coil of steel encircles it. The idea for this work was suggested by a delicious looking cookie, invitingly wrapped, which Gibbons glimpsed in a Parisian delicatessen. A feeling of sensual excitement which he had been seeking - without success - to convey in his work, was echoed in the sight of the cookie. Gibbons realised that the look of the sweet could be appropriated to express that sensation: The motif found a feeling'.

Part of the appeal of the motif was its capacity to resonate with other associations. As well as arousing a sense of something partially disclosed, the piece also seems to invite the viewer to unwrap it further in order to experience it more fully. It generates expectation and anticipation, sensations which move from the visual towards the sexual. These connotations are carried on in 'South Wish'. The object is now more explicitly a container of some sort, though its contents are a mystery. An oyster shell springs to mind, as does the promise of delight if its interior could be probed. At the same time there is a hint of erotic pleasure in the way the metal is folded into lips and apertures at its seams. These sculptures are significant because they signal themes central to Gibbons' art: containment, interior space and the capacity of certain shapes to be identified with memories and bodily states.

Gibbons has described his work as a 'cocktail' of elements, ranging from personal history and present experience to formal and aesthetic considerations. An important ingredient has been the example he has derived from non-Western art. In 1980 during a visit to New York Gibbons became fascinated by the collections of ancient Eastern and Far Eastern art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Subsequently he also came to know the collections of Oriental art in the Guimet Museum, Paris. He was impressed by the tendency of early Indian art, and also of Khmer (Cambodian) and Chinese art, towards more conceptual modes of representation, eschewing the literal appearance of things. The capacity of this approach to convey the subject's essence, and to evoke a sense of experience beyond what can be seen, was germane to the development of Gibbons' own artistic needs.

The evidence of this influence can be seen in the small welded steel sculptures which Gibbons made in the early 1980s. 'Untitled #1' 1980 and 'Untitled #3' 1980, for example, both relate to a Hindu female figure which he saw at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Indian sculpture expresses a vivid feeling of twisting, gyratory movement through various departures from naturalistic representation, notably the exaggerated arch of the hips and an extreme narrowing of the waist. In addition, the figure asserts its physicality through the treatment of the limbs, abdomen and breasts. These parts appear almost swollen by an interior burgeoning sensuality. In 'Untitled #1', Gibbons creates an analogous sense of bodily movement and voluptuousness, in abstract terms, through an agglomeration of writhing, muscular shapes. In 'Untitled #3' this has been developed by enclosing the shapes within a surrounding frame, responding to the idea of physical containment in the Hindu sculpture.

Through these small-scale sculptures Gibbons was able to articulate a sense of bodily experience without literal reference to the figure. The problem he now confronted was how to achieve this on a larger scale. In 1981 he executed a series of five large-scale works which address this issue. In retrospect, Gibbons sees these sculptures as a regression, though a necessary one. The immediate difficulty was that the formal vocabulary of such works as 'Untitled #3' did not translate,into bigger elements. Comprised of steel off-cuts and machine-parts, there were no direct equivalents, nor could they be assembled in the same way. Gibbons found that he had to fall back on angle iron and lengths of sheet steel, constructed in a way which recalls his armature-like works of the 1970s. In addressing issues of movement, balance, poise and posture he resorted to structures which once more suggest figures in a literal way. 'Stepping Out', for' example, seems like a reprise of 'The Dream' 1977-78 in its use of parted diagonal elements to evoke striding legs. Nevertheless, the last of these, 'Nanga' 1981, pointed the way to the 'breakthrough' works of 1981-82.

Like the related sculptures in the same series, 'Nanga' addresses formal questions arising from the representation of the body. Lengths of angle iron are assembled into vertical shapes which carry connotations of figures. Smaller, linear elements are attached, animating these structures by suggesting direction and movement. In contrast to these other works, however, 'Nanga' moves away from a totemic arrangement. Instead, two 'A' frames enclose a space at either side. Between them there is a central void. Rather than occupying space, the sculpture defines an absence of mass. Thus, although 'Nanga' is quite different from earlier small sculptures such as 'Untitled #3', like them it evokes physical experience through a concentration on interior space. At the same time, 'Nanga' represents a development from such works. In 'Untitled #3' the interior is filled. 'Nanga' suggested that containment alone could act as a metaphor for the body.

This realisation represents a decisive step forward in Gibbons' thinking and it led directly to a number of sculptures, made between 1981 and 1986, which announce his distinctive style. One of the first on which Gibbons worked, 'Place of Dreams' 1981-86, makes explicit the idea of a contained void. As in 'Nanga' there are two 'A' frames at the sides. These have now both been filled, on one side by a half-tank form, an element which recurs in subsequent works. This infilling, and the addition of a connecting roof-like shape above and a step below, creates a square recessed area at the centre of the piece, one half of which is pierced like an open door. As a result, framed space functions as an active element in the composition.

This new way of working is significant in a number of ways. There is an immediate change in the character of the piece and the atmosphere it generates. Whereas the smaller works had tended to be very active, their interiors alive with entwined shapes, 'Place of Dreams' communicates a profound stillness and quiet. In part this can be attributed to Gibbons' interest in ancient Eastern art and he has cited Khmer sculpture as an influence. As in Hindu representations of the figure, Khmer sculptors tended towards a smooth roundedness which makes the body appear almost like the surface of a shell. However, the vivid sense of movement in the Indian work emphasised the exterior of the figure. In contrast, the strict symmetry of the Khmer figure focuses attention on the idea of still containment. The life of the figure seems entirely internalised. It invites reflection about a realm of interior experience, a dimension implicit in the exposed interior of 'Place of Dreams'.

In 'Place of Dreams', the relation of exterior and interior finds a greater expressive dimension through the incorporation of elements relating to architecture. In addition to its closed sides, roof and step, the shallow space inside has a human scale. It resembles a cubicle. On the right, this inner area gives access to another enclosure: a tall niche, capable of accommodating a figure, created by the inside of the tank. At the back of the sculpture a rail at waist height crosses the door space preventing physical entry. There is a hint that this sculpture is for the eyes only. Though its layout seems to invite physical occupation, we are invited to inhabit and explore it in imagination only: we project a sense of the body into the work's interior. In so doing the sculpture is informed by a human presence, yet visually it remains empty. In a closely related work, 'Eastern Time' 1982-84, this impression is intensified by three shallow niches in series, each overhung by a roof shape and barriered a the front by a continuous rail. These strange interiors - giving rise to a palpable sense of absence, yet also evoking an invisible or metaphysical human occupation - are among Gibbons's most striking and distinctive inventions.

The paradox advanced in these works relates to an area of human nature which moves from the physical to the spiritual. It touches on those intangible aspects of experience which impart life, and turn the body to a lifeless shell when absent. Of these metaphysical issues Gibbons has commented that 'without the body the spirit has no home', an idea which influenced the making of 'Tomorrow' 1982-84. This work was partly inspired by a Chinese Bodhisattva[4] which he saw at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Khmer figures he had admired asserted a physical presence which was connected with a sense of their weight. They appeared substantial and rooted to the earth. In contrast, he was struck by the way the Bodhisattva seemed heavy, but sat lightly as if floating. It seemed simultaneously to affirm and to deny its physicality. He was also moved by the sensation of extraordinary stillness. a kind of inner quiet. which the figure conveyed. This combination of physical and spiritual qualities advanced the metaphor of physical containment he had found in earlier non-Western art. The Bodhisattva implied that the body was a house or temple for the spirit.

Homage' 1982-84 was the first work by Gibbons which dealt with this concept A rounded figure shape is confined within a box-like surround. Devoid of extraneous detail, the central contained figure is both impassive yet imposing in terms of its physical presence. In 'Tomorrow' Gibbons took these ideas further by weaving intimations of architecture and a human presence into a closer and more harmonious alliance. Neither figure nor architecture, it alludes to both of these things simultaneously. Its niche-like recess invites occupation by a figure, thus using the language of architecture to express a sense of the body. Conversely the sculpture as a whole reads as a figure whose silent, void-like interior is revealed.

The works which Gibbons made between 1981 and 1986 represent an important step forward in formal terms. At the same time they also mark his attainment of a clearer idea of the nature and direction of his art. In the course of that five year period, he became aware of what he has described as an agenda'. On one level this relates to the focusing of his concern with interior space and his elision of themes of architecture and the body. In another way, he also became increasingly receptive to the way his work was evolving, responding openly to the processes which it seemed to generate and require. During the 1970s he had attempted to arrest the tendency of his sculpture towards metaphorical content. Increasingly during the 1980s, he embraced the capacity of his work to explore and express personal experience.

An essential aspect of this process involves association. Gibbons often begins a sculpture only with a vague awareness of the sensation or memory he is motivated to address. As demonstrated by 'Parisian Wrap', and later by 'Place of Dreams', he frequently resorts to certain motifs which seem connected with the subject in question. As a sculpture develops, often over a long period of time, other associations will be generated and incorporated, and other experiences will inform the work. A common source of input is the materials themselves, whose character and history will generate new levels of meaning. Crucially, there is no hierarchy: no sense in which one area of life is more or less admissible than another. In illuminating the subject, Gibbons will accept and use whatever motif or visual language seems germane to the cause, Also, by working on a number of works concurrently Gibbons found that connections could be made, expanding further the range of possibilities, Throughout this process of 'Iateralisation', as Gibbons has described it, a primary concern is to be as 'detached' as possible. An essential condition is that he remains unaware of the exact nature of the ideas he is attempting to express, and stays open to intuitive association. Once the process becomes self-conscious the endeavour ceases to be exploratory, and degenerates into illustration. The way that a sculpture develops is not simply a formal issue. At every stage, the work must be informed by the need to express empirical content. These considerations have guided the course of Gibbons' art to the present day.

The way that certain works acquire meaning is demonstrated by 'Darragh's Place', a small sculpture made between 1981 and 1984. Despite its architectural overtones, while he was working on it certain aspects - principally its scale and detail - reminded him of modelling portrait heads. The idea of a head as a container influenced its construction, and the character of the piece subsequently evolved as a kind of portrait of his son. As had been the case in the early 1980s, the impetus for certain developments came from working on a small scale. 'Darragh's Place', and a later related work, 'Portrait of a Bride' 1984-86, both recall tabernacles or miniature shrines: a small opening on the front leads to a side space which is out of sight. In contrast to the large works made at the same time, they are deeper and more box-like, their interiors more complex. The development of a complicated interior space subdivided into compartments and individual areas, and external structures more fully realised in three dimensions, characterises later large-scale sculptures such as 'Desire' 1985-86 and 'The Prophet' 1988-90. These works employ an arrangement of boxes to create an interior which can be explored sequentially, suggesting a sense of the body as a series of distinct spaces. In 'The Prophet' there is some hint of a connecting biological infrastructure in the addition of tubular shapes and rods. 'Desire' is less organic, more severe in its construction: as if a figure and a sarcophagus had become one.

Whatever intimations of mortality are suggested by these box-like evocations of the figure, they are dispelled by a number of pieces completed at the end of the 1980s in which Gibbons seems actively to have sought a lighter, more open means of expression. 'St Matthew's Passion' 1986-90 is one of the first of his sculptures to be raised clear of the ground so that in part it seems to float. It also employs applied colour to a greater degree, a characteristic shared by subsequent works. 'St Matthew's Passion' continues the suggestion of religious architecture announced in 'Darragh's Place'. His appropriation of that particular language gives an additional resonance to the implication of the body as a vessel for spiritual experience. An arched entrance at the front of the sculpture connects with two adjacent spaces, like side chapels, one open, the other closed. In this arrangement there is also an echo of confessional boxes in the way that a human space is so tightly and intensely focused at its centre. As with a pulpit, its construction seems like an extension of the human figure, pinpointing its presence and, when unoccupied, redolent with an impression of its absence.

One of the achievements of Gibbons' sculpture is its use, in an expressive way, of formal systems deriving from areas unrelated to sculpture. Towards the end of the 1980s, the architecture-based idiom of works such as 'Tomorrow' and 'St Matthew's Passion' was replaced increasingly by a visual vocabulary connected with industry and engineering. Cranes, trestles, production lines and work benches are recurrent underlying motifs. These references generate an ambience of human activity. They also emphasise that the works are fabricated objects whose character arises from the particular circumstances of their making. Gibbons' own involvement as artisan is enmeshed in their physical appearance and in that sense the statement they make is more personal. The seeds of these developments can be seen in 'Breeze' 1985-90. Its tall, ascending shapes are a link with his previous connotations of the figure, but the overall construction is radically different in character. Replacing solid enclosing planes, there is now a lattice-like fabric which relates more closely to railings and ladders and leads the eye upwards. The projecting ceiling defines a three dimensional space beneath it, but the area occupied by the work is now transparent and insubstantial. Air and light are brought into the composition, lightening its mood and revealing more completely - in the round - the details of its construction.

By borrowing from these other areas of human activity, Gibbons has enriched his sculptural vocabulary and broadened its range of reference. At the same time, one of the main sources of his work continues to be earlier Western sculpture, whose concerns and achievements are a primary point of reference. Within that tradition Gibbons' enthusiasms and interests are wide, ranging from the Hellenistic period to the late 19th Century and the art of our own time. 'Breeze', for example, owes its feeling of open airiness to the Nike of Samothrace in the Louvre. In 'Temptation' 1986-90 and 'Consent' 1988-90, there is an implicit eroticism which derives from Rodin's 'Iris, Messenger of the Gods' 1890-91, a work which has always haunted Gibbons. In Rodin's depiction of a female torso with legs spread, Gibbons perceived a link between its overt sexuality and the spirituality he divined in some non-Western depictions of the figure. As in depictions of the Buddha, the Iris confirms the body as a sacred place, to which its sex is an entrance and passageway. The vagina motif is incorporated in 'Temptation', so that the figure becomes a sexual totem. In 'Consent', the same image confers an erotic significance on the crane-like figure with gantry. Through a startling marriage of allusions, an image of industrial production is combined with human biology, creating a strange icon of sexuality and fertility.

Throughout the 1980s Gibbons' large-scale works were predominantly vertical in format. Towards the end of that decade the tendency to read these shapes as figures was becoming more pronounced, the suggestion of narrative content increasingly explicit. Since the beginning of the 1990s, Gibbons seems to have become aware of the need to address this progression towards a more overt allusiveness. Alongside his concern to make sculptures which are expressive in personal terms, the need to encode a narrative has to be balanced against the requirement that the works function as objects in their own right. The sculptures have to have perceivable coherence and character: an internal order. They must also be able to admit the viewer's interpretation. The metaphorical content of Gibbons' work is in no sense fixed or immutable. There is no single correct reading. In their references to architecture and the body, the space of the sculptures should be a context for imaginative occupation. The spectator should be able to respond to and interact with them, bringing their own experiences to bear on the range of possible meanings. As a result the statements made by Gibbons' sculpture moves from the personal to the universal. The individual experience which provides the genesis of a work must, through its formal articulation, resonate in a collective memory.

As a result of these concerns, during the early 1990s Gibbons' sculpture underwent a number of significant changes, not least in its treatment of space. In contrast to the totemic form of his earlier work, he now began to emphasise horizontality and to introduce different levels. In works such as ‘The Communion' 1991-92 and 'Ascension' 1994-95 (p31), for example, this takes the form of a raised platform. In a number of other works a surface is raised on legs so that the sculpture resembles a table or bench. In ‘The Calling', ‘The Wedding Feast' (p28) and 'Island, Forest, Sky' (p27), all 1991-92, various objects and shapes are arranged on a raised plane. This idea takes on a different connotation when the space below the raised surface is defined by bars, as in ‘The Alliance' 1992 (p29), or by mesh as in ‘The Chosen' 1995-96(p34), it becomes an area of confinement.

The immediate effect of these innovations is to alter the way we relate to the work. Previously the sculpture seemed to embody figures, or to permit occupation by a figure. The presence of levels eliminates this connotation. We are made aware that we are outside of it and the objects it contains are on the inside. An entirely different narrative is implied in which human life is expressed through a formal exploration of everyday activity, work, ritual, ceremony and psychology. 'The Communion' uses an arrangement which derives from a drum kit: a central seat is encircled by surfaces of different sizes. But it locates this situation within a wider empirical context by invoking the idea of being surrounded. Similarly, in the pieces suggesting tables there is a complex texture of human involvement: eating, washing and arranging food and drink. Tall candle-like shapes in ‘The Calling' convey liturgical references, implying an altar and transforming washing and eating into sacred ritual. The idea is continued in’ The Alliance' where some sacerdotal or religious significance is possible in the presence of two large host-shapes. But its expression in the language of industrial storage colours any liturgical significance with a range of other associations, from security and protection to confinement and the denial of access.

Gibbons' employment of shapes which are so heavily loaded with extra-formal association draws us into the 'narrative' of the sculpture. In a number of recent sculptures, he has deepened the viewer's involvement by making their experience of the work more complex spacially. A key development in pieces such as 'Exodus' 1992-94 and 'Beginning' 1995 (p33) has been the gravitation of the sculpture towards the creation of an environment. Using a language drawn from the industrial landscape, the works define an area. Towers, walkways, viewing platforms, barriers, ladders, doorways and windows activate space as radically as possible. Although we are not intended actually to occupy the spaces they articulate, we engage with the works through an imaginative exploration of our physical relation with them.

In 'Exodus' and 'Ascension' 1994-95 movement is a central concern. The dominant theme of these works is a walkway, focusing on the idea of connections between places and people. There is a sense of passage from one state to another. In 'Beginning' this kind of engagement in Gibbons' work receives its most complex statement to date. The way it occupies space is both expansive and insubstantial. We walk around its transparent screen-like form, experiencing its different zones and spatial imperatives: ladders that lead upwards and across; windows and doorways that give views to the other side; the screen itself which forms a barrier resisting and yielding entry. Through these implications the work provides a context for contemplation of human behaviour and movement, the way we situate ourselves and relate to our surroundings, and our relations with other people - seen, for example, on the other side of the barrier. In these ways the space of the work is physical but also has a psychological dimension.

The idea of containment, implicit from the beginning, finds a logical extension in Gibbons' most recent sculpture. Since 1995 he has made a number of works whose cage-like structures re-invent the theme of interior space using a new language of transparency and symmetry. In part, sculptures such as 'September' (p37) and 'The Book' (p33), both 1995-96, developed out of constructions like 'Beginning'. But these later works use repeated linear elements to enclose space, allowing us unimpeded visual access to the inside of the object. It is as though the flesh has been stripped from his earlier works reducing them to a kind of skeleton. The sculptures have become almost entirely an evocation of containment. The exterior shell is almost practically invisible and we now pass directly to the space within.

The new works represent a dramatic break with his previous practice in terms of the materials used. In contrast to found scrap and solid forms, for the last two years Gibbons has restricted himself to virgin steel: linear rods with no previous use. The decision to use a completely different language was taken with some trepidation. He foresaw that this would inevitably involve a fresh approach and that familiar solutions to particular problems would no longer be available. Also, the look of the work would have to change: in ways which could not be predicted. Nevertheless, Gibbons felt that such changes were necessary. Growing familiarity with the vocabulary he had been using would eventually lead to precisely the kind of self-conscious image-making he was anxious to avoid. Also, eliminating the suggestiveness of used materials would introduce an inventive challenge. As Gibbons anticipated, implementing these changes has involved reconstituting his ways of working but has opened up a new expressive dimension.

One of the dramatic consequences of using the new material was that he was now responsible for the developing structure of each piece in a much closer way. Previously, using parts with an established identity would provide a starting point, or would alter the course of a sculpture. Gibbons now found that he was starting with nothing; moreover, every detail of the entire structure had to be fabricated, guided only by intuition and sustained responsiveness to the piece as it changed. A positive aspect of this was the greater freedom and flexibility afforded by virgin steel. As he had found while making armatures for Nemon, bending and cutting linear steel could be liberating, like inscribing lines in three dimensions.

A principal effect of these methods has been, in some instances, to push the work to an even greater degree of abstraction. 'The Kiss' 1995-96 (p36) and 'September', for example, are very different from the preceding works in that they do not obviously refer to any familiar object. Also their means of construction is not explicitly derived from other areas of human activity. They express the idea of internal space essentially. In 'September', the work comprises a kind of exo-skeleton which defines its external limits. Within that frame, the work is subdivided into cells of interior space which surround a central sanctum-like void. Space encloses space. The work has an almost crystalline quality, evident in its sense of harmonious internal order and the way its structure seems completely resolved.

Paradoxically, other works in the same series make overt references to familiar objects and experiences. 'The Crib' (p35) is readily recognisable, but is nonetheless startling because of the way this image has been transformed. A place of protection for an infant has been enlarged to adult proportions, its means of representation stripping it of any semblance of warmth or comfort. A wooden stool placed close by states a watchful human presence. Composed of a lattice of ribs, the skeletal appearance of the crib invests an image of new life with a suggestion of mortality, apparently linking the cradle and the grave. Once again, a container for the body provides a site for reflection on the nature of a shared human predicament. At the same time the rib-like structure of these works and the repetition of their component elements - unprecedented in Gibbons' work - establishes a regular rhythm, like a heart beat. We peer inside their transparent structures, sensing an insistent pulse of forms and space and finding a physical empathy with their symmetry, order and proportion.

Arguably one of the hallmarks of any art of significance is its capacity to change the way we look at things. Gibbons' work constitutes a distinctive exploration of areas of experience which we sometimes overlook or take for granted because of their containment within the precincts of the familiar. His sculpture draws the spaces we occupy into poetic alignment with the body we inhabit, underlining and illuminating some fundamental aspects of life. In so doing it returns us to our surroundings with a heightened awareness of ourselves and our relation to the world.

1. Cleve Grey (ed.), 'David Smith (1906-1965): A Tribute', Art in America, LIV/1 (Jan-Feb 1966)

2. Although Gibbons made a number of sculptures as a student in Ireland in the 1960s, he traces the origins of his mature work to the sculptures he made in the mid-1970s.

3. This and all subsequent statements by the artist are taken from a conversation with the auther in September 1996

4. A Buddha to-be.


'John Gibbons From Night To Day'

The Butler Gallery, The Castle, Kilkenny, Ireland

Published by The Butler Gallery, edition of 200

Aidan Dunne

Looking through slides of John Gibbons’ work of the last fifteen or so years, it is striking how many of the sculptures hold out the promise of a conclusive viewpoint but continually postpone its fulfilment.  Similarly, they trigger associations with particular objects, spaces, environments, which they then decline to become. They lead us on. But they establish their own memorable spaces and viewpoints in the process.

Their spaces are, consistently, spaces for people. They seem to call for habitation. Without the human presence that so many of them make room for and, it can be argued pointedly withhold, they are in a sense curiously incomplete. But so strong is the intimation of presence that is seems implicit in each work.

After a while it becomes clear that their vacancies are reserved for us, the viewers, and for our experience. Gibbons has been faithful to the medium that first engaged him. It is surprising that a neutral, workaday material, employed in its neutral, workaday vernacular – steel in its functional forms - produces such atmospheric, resonant effects. Strictly speaking, the sculptures are abstract, but perhaps precisely because steel is such an ubiquitous, versatile material, it trails a huge range of associations in its wake. Looking at most of these recent sculptures earlier this year, in the spring, under the soaring brick arch that is Gibbons’ studio in London. I was amazed at how they worked on me. At first you take in the constituent details, the cool linear armatures, the more occasional masses, the flowing rhythmic sense. But when you spend time with them other dimensions of meaning quickly seep into your consciousness. I jotted down a few notes, ideas as they occurred to me. Helplessness, exclusion, recollection. Rooms from which someone has just departed. Dreams of loss or escape. The pieces felt like setting for people. Close to dockland, surrounded by small garages and workshops, adjacent to warehousing, the studio in one of a long row of lock-ups beneath a railway viaduct in Bermondsey. This urban landscape has filtered into Gibbons’ sculptural vocabulary. It wasn’t just the rumble and thunder of trains overhead every few minutes that brought railway platforms and the whole paraphenalia of rail  transport to mind in relation to the work.

Not just railway, through. A certain ominous note creeps in. Inevitably the bars, towers, tanks and cages engender ideas of confinement, not necessarily of prison per se, but of all those places where people and animals are controlled, ordered, managed, directed. Like the apparatus of demarcation and surveillance that is becoming ever more prevalent, and that reached unprecedented levels in Northern Ireland in the recent past. Other things as well : Beds with restraints. Production lines. Crowd control. Public utilities. Mechanised agriculture.

Areas in which the superfluities of style are pruned back to reveal the brutality of pure function. When it doesn’t matter what the consumers think. Hence not the trappings of affluence, environments and places that flatter or reassure the consumer. Rather the unmediated exercise of power and authority.

It is unsurprising that aspects of these broad areas of imagery should bring to mind the Holocaust and more recent horrors in the Balkans and Rwanda. This is something, it must be emphasised, that is completely unforced in the work itself. There are numerous visual echoes but no explicit imagery. Gibbons accurately remarked that much depends on what you bring to each piece yourself , your own personal baggage of history, memory, feeling. All of it colours what you see.

Certainly that is an achievement in itself : to allow space for the viewer’s feelings in the work, to provide a context. But surely he has touched on a commonality of experience, because all or the vast majority of us have found ourselves in something like that relationship, of individual to institutional authority, that is repeatedly implied.

From our conversation I picked up several personal references that immediately made me think : Yes, that ties in, and that ties in. And it is true that the artist’s personal history must have been instrumental in shaping his art. Yet it doesn’t matter. It’s not necessary, perhaps not even desirable, to suggest and itemise such connections, because the work is definitively not illustrative or symbolic in that way. Gibbons himself, speaking about the sculptures, is clear: “I don’t want to imply how people should read them.”

There is a feeling that allowing a space to those who are not immediately there is in itself a positive action, lending an elegiac, meditative quality to many pieces. And the ominousness is substantially offset by something else : Gibbons sheer fluency with the steel. His Project Gallery exhibition in 1979, with its folded, compressed, compact forms, a world away from this work, had at least one thing in common, the sense that this is an artist thoroughly at home with his materials, doing what he does best.

It is worth noting how, in formal terms, his work has opened out lately. There are less dense, enclosed shapes, more linear, airy spaces. In place of the found and recovered metal he has previously favoured, stuff with a history of its own, a history that he has been able to make use of, he is employing more virgin steel. The space clarity of the recent work is extraordinary. As with Julio Gonzalez or David Smith, when you look at a Gibbons piece there is no gap between idea, image and object. Any given work does not illustrate anything, it is it. He think and draws within the works themselves. Beautiful is not a word that springs to mind in the rush of initial impressions, whatever immediate virtues strike you in terms of a utilitarian aesthetic. Yet beauty there is, in the rhythmic, almost musical interconnection and repetition of forms and spaces, in the numerous intimations, of  an artist working in a language based on long, instructive experience. This is a rare enough quality now, the artist as virtuoso of means. It is perhaps even, some might suggest, a suspect quality but it is something to be cherished.
 It goes beyond virtuosity for its own sake. Gibbons’ work is a constant. Looking back over the slides of previous pieces, an impromptu retrospective, there is a terrific feeling of continuity, flexibility, evolution, The practice of his art is second  nature, is a central thread in his life, is even, one suspects, the chief means he has of addressing the world in which he finds himself.