John Gibbons

Catalogue Text, 2009 -



The Secret Life of Stuff


Infinite Streams

On John Gibbons in ‘The Secret Life of Stuff’

Being alone in the studio with nine sculptures by John Gibbons was not my idea of being alone. The room was occupied; in fact it doesn’t feel wrong to say it was peopled. They were waiting for me to arrive, silently assembled in a circle, sitting on plinths that might just as well have been chairs. There was nowhere else to stand except at the centre of this group; from there I held their gaze, and at that moment, they knew they would be judged. How can art objects have such an effect?

Conventionally stuff is seen as something solid and immediately available to the senses. If instead it is ‘anything and everything’ (e.g. an event, a feeling, a colour or an interaction) then it follows that an art object has an identity forged not only from a solid substance (clay, marble, metal) but also from a myriad of other intangible things. ‘She moved/Her hair’ is of course made from metal, a solid substance, but that substance arrived in the studio with a past. The stainless steel John Gibbons chose to use is an alloy of an alloy, designed to be corrosion free and have lustre - so I could say that this piece is made of a scientist’s ingenuity and of generic functional beauty. 

‘She moved/Her hair’ exists as it does, because of infinite streams of happenings and interactions with the world, and we don’t acknowledge their role. Just one of these, I’d call compatibility of intention. For example, the gentle striations and deep criss-cross lines on the surface couldn’t have occurred if both the artist and art object hadn’t agreed in advance that this was a good idea. 

The shocking vitality I encountered in John Gibbons studio and the pull of work like this, is not in its inertness and stability as an art object constituted from metal, but in its capacity to move beyond that state, away from such literalness. 

By Della Gooden, 2018


Extract from the catalogue essay to accompany the exhibition 

The Secret Life of Stuff’ at Arthouse1, London

Participating artists:

Eileen Agar

Bernice Donszelmann

Catherine Ferguson

John Gibbons

Della Gooden                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          

Curated by Catherine Ferguson and Della Gooden                 


'John Gibbons, The Messengers'  

Hillsboro Fine Art, Dublin, Ireland

ISBN: 978-1-909725-04-1

MAINTAINING TRANSMISSION   the work of John Gibbons

The sculptures of John Gibbons amalgamate pieces of engineered steel but show the marks—innumerable marks—of sustained, intensive, purposeful work on the part of a single maker intent on steering all his resources towards the continuous refinement of a single, overriding project.  This project is a shared endeavour and an inherited responsibility that Gibbons’s work adumbrates both in its characteristic forms and dimensions and in the clues it offers in a series of elusive but suggestive titles. The titles act as confirmation that these ostensibly very contemporary works are also echoing and remodelling a set of ancient preoccupations, that they are extending the repertoire of ancient sculpture found not just in the Western tradition but in other traditions less easy to assimilate to our Western readings of sculptural form and function.

Two of the works exhibited here bear the prefix ‘temple’ as part of their typically enigmatic descriptors. Gibbons’s titles, even when very brief, tend to point in different directions, often including slashes and dashes to qualify or complicate the initial term.  But ‘temple’ would not be out of place in relation to many of his works, since their forms often resemble architectural structures, even though their dimensions are adapted to those of the human form.  During a recent installation of the sculpture ‘Untold’ at Jesus College, Cambridge, Gibbons selected a location within sight of a chapel tower to the north east and a church spire to the south east.  Their combinations of horizontal nave and vertical tower structures rhymed with the sculpture’s own cage-like form that looked as if it could accommodate a single human body either lying down or, in the centre of the work, standing up.  These correspondences enforced a recognition that Gibbons’s work is more often than not concerned with the accommodation of the spiritual in a material world.  The church, the chapel, the temple, are all structures built to contain our encoded transactions with the spiritual; the body is where the individual struggle to accommodate the spiritual begins and where it would end without the fabricated structures that result only from collaboration, from a sense of community built up only through time.

Gibbons’s works are not about religion or creed, but about a broader and more fundamental apprehension of the spiritual that often affects us in ways that cannot be defined in any language. One of the sculptures in the show ‘The Messsengers’ invokes the columns that form part of the ‘temple’ archetype in many cultures but disrupts the architectural scale that would involve by providing the columns with a base in the shape of a bell.  Bells are used ritually across the world, they harness our thoughts of the spiritual to our daily routines, and they create a sense of community by drawing together those within earshot.  They speak in no language except that of a wordless sense of belonging.  And they speak to successive generations in the same place. After the French Revolution, many church bells were buried to save them from being melted down to make cannon. A generation later they were resurrected, as a very symbolic part of the general return to tradition. But the physical scale of Gibbons’s work is that of a much more easily transportable artefact; it invites us to think of the handbells used in the itinerant days of the early church.  The overall emphasis here is on the transfer, the transmission of messages; the tradition of message-bearing is the focus rather than the content of specific messages.   

Both ‘Temple/Beginning’ and ‘Messenger/Revelation’ are vessels through which messages might pass, containing tube-like passages that suggest a connection with crossing from one state to another.  The titles suggest this might form part of a spiritual progress, moving from ignorance to a state of enlightenment.  But the passages are just lengths of steel tubing, that might have been used for any number of purposes.  And this very foregrounded act of re-purposing is a vivid reminder of the wholly material basis of many of the most revered artefacts entrusted with spiritual meaning by generations of believers.  Gibbons’s work implies a fascination with relics, physical objects touched by an association with the holy, but it is much more precisely focused on the power of art, on art’s ability to conjure a belief in the sacred using purely physical resources.  The most important tradition that his work taps into is belief in the power of art.  The title of the show ‘The Messengers’ brings associations with the transmission of the Word, the holy book, scripture. But in many faiths it is the spoken word of prophets, often speaking in obscure or riddling language, that is the basis of tradition. Or it might be the prophets themselves.  The message takes many forms, and many of its most distinctive and memorable embodiments take the form of art and architecture.  Many constructed objects have been endowed with a sacred power in their own right.  The two works ‘Messenger /Announce’ and ‘Messenger /Revelation’ are given properties that are simultaneously architectural and corporeal—with dome-like features conceivably resembling breasts—while they also assume the dimensions and cryptic purposefulness of a portable shrine.  The sculpture ‘She Moved / Her Hair’ chosen to accompany these works is closely related in size and appearance although its title might suggest a secular alternative to the tendentious sacrality of the others. In relation to the human body and its forms and measures, this work suggests an incomplete upper torso, emphasising the musculature of one shoulder in the act of turning.  This is the part of the body that would be swept by a female head of hair.  It provides an extraordinary counterpoint to the composure and meditative inwardness of the other works.  The hair has been celebrated by countless poets and artists as a distinctive marker of beauty, especially in women, and yet it is the part of the body that is already dead. Gibbons’s sculpture juxtaposes the evanescence of temporal beauty, whose distinctiveness has a lasting quality only in memory, with the enduring power of the spiritual.  And yet the collective memory of the art historical tradition contributes to and sustains what is individually the experience of a moment, proposing that the two traditions of sacred and profane art are in fact mutually confirming. The art historical tradition is even more clearly invoked in the two panel works, where the rectangular shape that has distinguished the western tradition of painting is both deployed and disrupted.  ‘Panel / All Out’ is positioned in a way that refuses a conventional presentation of the landscape or portrait format, being set on its edge in a way that is reminiscent of Malevich’s radical gestures aimed at disturbing conventional settings in the Russian icon tradition.  But the most radical gesture of all in Gibbons’s work is signalled by the injunction ‘All Out’ and its physical corollary.  The phrase might remind readers of Beckett’s novel ‘Murphy’ of the cry of the park-keeper at closing time, a cry which is given metaphysical overtones, although in the present instance, it refers in the first instance to the handle-like structure that sticks out from the surface of the work.  It offers itself to the viewer not as a pictorial event but as an implicit invitation to grab hold of the metal bar that runs vertically above the surface of the work, as if it were a handle put there to tempt the viewer whose imagination is prone to turn the work round to suit a more conventional format.  The second panel work, ‘Panel / Dancer’, seems to have been caught in the act of dancing with the laws of magnetism, where the opposing forces of attraction and repulsion have been caught on the turn, at the point when the distribution of its parts is subject to either a centripetal or a centrifugal force.  Both panel works share the insistence of the sculpture ‘She Moved / Her Hair’ on the close observation of the laws of the physical universe as a basis for grasping the order underlying the apparent unruliness of the experience of the moment.  The outer edges of ‘Panel /Dancer’ are established by shards of metal arranged around the perimeter of the work to resemble a sunburst, at once an unpredictable phenomenon and an enduring symbol of the sacred.  The messages of these works, like their titles, are hinged, or hyphenated; they point in two directions at once, and their power derives from maintaining that tension.   


Rod Mengham




'John Gibbons, Light/Listen,  Selected Sculptures 1991 - 2010'

Hillsboro Fine Art, Dublin, Ireland

ISBN: 978-0-9564950-0-6

'Listen with your eyes – The sculpture of John Gibbons'

Paul Moorhouse

The earliest sculpture in the present exhibition, The Wedding Feast 1991-92, was made almost twenty years ago.  Standing four-square on the ground, it comprises a structure resembling a table on which there is a deliberate arrangement of object-like shapes, scarred and dripped with paint.  Evidently hand-made using scrap steel, remnants of containers and tool-parts, this fabricated construction has an irresistible material identity and an almost industrial character, as if belonging to a workshop. Yet whatever purpose is implied remains deeply enigmatic.  Its confrontational presence demands explanation yet denies a logical response.  Material fact is fused with mystery, the promise of meaning being simultaneously offered and withheld.  This sustained tension, in which pure form and the intimation of some deeper human significance are complicit, raises The Wedding Feast from the world of functioning things and into the domain of art.   Indeed, this dialogue between structure and implication is the defining characteristic of John Gibbons’ work as a whole, distinguishing him as one of Britain’s leading contemporary sculptors.  The Wedding Feast marks a critical moment in Gibbons’ development.  In the late 1970s he worked for a while as an assistant to Anthony Caro.  From Caro, Gibbons inherited a commitment to the expressive potential of abstraction and an allegiance to working with welded scrap steel.   Unlike the older sculptor, however, from the outset Gibbons’ work manifested an impatience with formal invention which eschewed meaning.  The sculptural language he adopted was concerned, no less than that of Caro’s, with issues of shape, space, balance, syntax and also, from the interaction of these elements, with investing sculpture with its own, independent reality.   But, allied to these issues, a more pressing concern for Gibbons was the question of how to use abstract form to explore and convey a wider and more complex range of experience. 
At the heart of this endeavour was an awareness of the power of his materials to function evocatively, drawing upon hidden memories and releasing imaginative associations.  Metaphor – in which a bridge is created between different, independent objects of thought  - became his compass.   Throughout the 1980s, Gibbons proceeded according to this agenda, producing highly distinctive abstract sculpture that explored unknown regions of imagination.  With its intimations of intangible human activity - involving ceremony, ritual, containment and arrangement - The Wedding Feast is one of the highpoints of the first decade of his mature work.  
Implying a coming together, The Wedding Feast may be seen as the consummation of concerns that had guided his progress and also, in retrospect, as the progenitor of the works that now issued.  Bloodline 1995 and The Chosen 1995-6, in their different ways, advanced the idea of containment as a metaphor for an implied human presence.  During the 1980s this theme had taken the form of sculptures resembling buildings, niches, reliquary boxes and the human body, all of which were presented as containers for life or as empty vessels expressing absence.  With these two subsequent sculptures, a sense of containment was strengthened by the incorporation of such transparent elements as mesh screens and open shapes which exposed the interior of each sculpture.
The Chosen can be seen as a kind of cage or enclosure.  Bloodline made the link between containment and the human body more insistent, taking the form of a channel suggesting a gaping artery.  Previously sculpture had concentrated on solid mass or exterior surface.  Opening up his work in this way was a radical extension in formal terms, creating a new, permeable dialogue between exterior and inner elements. But admitting the viewer’s gaze to the contained insides of a sculpture was also powerfully evocative.  It enabled a visible interior space to be more closely identified with ideas of occupation and presence. 
During the 1990s this central, metaphorical theme of Gibbons’ work became increasingly apparent while also taking on new modes of expression.  Having identified his sculptures as vessels that explore and contain a rich diversity of human experience, around 1995 he began using linear stock steel rods.  Augmenting his earlier involvement with sheet steel, this contrasting formal vocabulary produced a remarkable new body of sculpture.  In such works as The Crib, The Book, September and The Kiss, all 1995-6, a lattice-like arrangement functions as a kind of exo-skeleton. Each of these pieces has an intriguing and ambiguous significance, at once tangible yet also elusive. Union (For TW) 1996-7, which followed, applied this approach to a strange tower-shape resembling a human head, apparently wearing a pointed cap.  The result is profoundly disturbing.  Devoid of surface or ‘skin’, the sculpture is nevertheless compellingly anthropomorphic.  But its revealed core is invisible, insubstantial and beyond reach.
As the sculptures in this exhibition completed since 2001 demonstrate, Gibbons’ involvement with interior space has deepened and diversified.  Making light an active element became an increasing preoccupation and he began to use stainless steel and sometimes copper.  As One 2001-2 and Calling On You 2004 are very different in appearance from Let Me 2005 and Meditation/ Sing 2007-8.  The earlier pair of works are linear and open; the more recent pieces are both closed and in contrasting ways assert a mantle-like exterior.  Even so, in all these sculptures there is a pressing sense of an interior presence, whether or not this is revealed.  Each piece appears wrapped around a burgeoning core.  In a subsequent work, Meditation/Breath 2008, this outer case seems on the verge of rupturing, as if being split apart by irresistible forces within.  Like a fermenting fruit, the object cannot contain its inner processes of change. An interior domain seems identified with something essential and energising.
Gibbons’ will to engage with an area of experience beneath external appearances informs both his working practice and the works themselves as they take shape.  In new sculptures such as Fathers/Sons/Fathers 2009-10, he begins, literally, with nothing.  There is no found object to which to respond, nor even a pre-formed plan of action. The materials are his only guide and each work grows incrementally, as an accretion of details and decisions.  The process is intuitive, even detached, during which the artist remains alert to the ideas and associations generated by each sculpture as it gathers character and direction.  These perceptions feed developments so that he must, in a sense, monitor his own inner dialogue with the evolving work, allowing new layers of thought to emerge.  This is a practice he has described, memorably, as ‘listening with my eyes’. 
By these means, the interior worlds of the artist and the artwork are drawn into a kind of congruence.  The surface of both is peeled away, making available a site for habitation and exploration.  As the title of Letter/Replying To You 2009 suggests, Gibbons’ sculpture has a message.  This comes from an unknown inner source; and then, having acquired physical form, it is offered to the viewer.  Delivered from an area of experience shared by all, it expresses a truth both intimate and hidden, yet universal.


John Gibbons

‘Surface’ where the inner and outer worlds meet – the ‘place’ where material ‘opacity’ ‘clears’ to reveal the interior, has, I have come to realize been one of my main sculptural interests for some considerable time. Surface unites the inner and outer worlds – it is the place to ‘listen’ through your eyes in order to see.
The creative act is one of making conscious – bringing into visibility that, which is unconscious, formatted in another sense.
My work is a dialogue of exposure - of bringing into the world some deeper sense/need, like a seed in the earth on feeling the sun’s spring heat. This journey, drawn by intuition to the place where all is one – a nothingness/a wilderness to be engaged with and from where vistas are opened on to the human psyche.
Is it possible for anything/one to exist without a concept or a philosophical stance? – I believe not. As an artist these aspects become evident on the completion of the work – no different for a piece of text. The intellectual rigor of visual language applied equally (no different) from that of writing or mathematics. Content becomes evident or not at this point.
I am fascinated by the three-dimensional nature of DNA and the fact that molecules have a left and right side. DNA stores the genetic information of all living organism. Does it store other forms of memory - passed down like the more recognizable traits from our forbears? Research into transplant patients shows that a small percentage has postoperative behavior that exhibits clear reference to their donor’s preferences, this I find fascinating. These have taken the form of totally changing the food they enjoy, clothes they wear and their sexual preferences to that of their donors. One individual kept waking up from the same horrifying dream at the point where he could see a bullet coming towards his head. He discovered later that his heart came from a murder victim who had been shot.
Do we know the/our brain? What secrets does it hold? What role does the ‘old brain’ play in our mind?
The unease of the spirit and body ‘compromised’ in their union, while their unique abilities remain frustrated/fall short in their separateness, also engages me.
Sculptors are engaged with the unification of these aspects of our make up, hence the very real potential of placing ourselves in conflict with ‘God’ – ‘Otherness’. I was advised as a young artist, that there is a need to recognize this place and behave appropriately.
This place has occupied my thoughts, the nature of my memory, both conscious and unconscious, generated through my breath and inheritance.

'In conversation...'

The artist in conversation with Rod Mengham

RM: The earlier works chosen for this exhibition have the appearance of being both sculpted and engineered. And their separate elements are put into relations that seem to be logical, even if the logic remains mysterious. At the very least, they seem to carry the memory of a world that is run according to the laws of physics, whereas, with the later work, I think one is prompted to think more readily of metaphysics. Is this a useful way of thinking about the differences between the earlier and later works?

JG: As sensory beings we are affected by the world we live in – we interact with our surroundings and are conditioned by them. New surroundings generate new sensations – using an escalator – going up in a lift – walking on walkways – using the tube. Coming from the west of Ireland to London these were new sensations, which affected me. This was an engineered world, using the language of construction. I was not conscious of this at the time nor would I want to be. For me it is important to engage with the creative process outside consciousness. The new work is too fresh and I prefer not to think about it in this way as it renders making obsolete.
I think about conception and the entry of the soul, which some say is identified when the foetus first kicks in the womb.

RM: With the sculptures from the 90s like 'The Chosen' and 'The Wedding Feast', it is almost as if you have transformed the equipment--the tools, the work station, the bench--required to construct the work, into the physical basis of the sculpture itself, as if you have incorporated an aspect of every part of the process into the final product. The sculpture comes with a memory of how it was made, with the context in which it could be conceived...

That's how they evolved - we spend so much time at work we really do not see it - I found it interesting watching two or three different people doing the same washing up - we all do it differently - the way we go about it - the sequencing - ordering the wash - the stacking for drying. Look at different people's desk tops - mine is very layered and some might say disordered - I know where every thing is and if somebody 'tidies it up' I can't find a thing. Our environment - the things we use in our everyday life says a lot about us - I tapped into that.

RM: Another aspect of the 90s work that seems to anticipate what you have done since is the provision of an enclosure, a cage-like structure, that divides the work into different spaces, creating an interior, however porous the intervening grid or membrane might be. Placing an interior that is ultimately inaccessible at or near the physical and conceptual centre of the work seems to have remained very important to you.

We have no real sense of our interiors - I remember seeing cattle being slaughtered as a child - amazed when the insides spill out and all the steam. The interiors were a marvel - a very different landscape - so varied and viscous - and we all walk about with this extraordinary place. Imagine if we could see inside our minds in the similar way.
When I started opening up my work I was very surprised when I found that I had to make an inside - it was intriguing and I still find it so.

RM: The revelation of form in the moment of its imminent loss--which is what that revelation about the insides of cattle seems to be about--has a counterpoint in the moment when being acquires form for the first time, which you have referred to before in connection with the moment when the egg is first laid and hardens into a particular shape. You have this fascination with these transitional moments when form attaches to being or is detached from it.

J.G. Birth/Passage is a journey from one domain to another - each environment defines and reveals this to us. Conception presses on our awareness as a sacred place - the odds and what that means are profound.

RM: 'Calling On You', 'Saying/To You', 'Fathers/Sons/Fathers' are all very different in form but they seem to be premised on imagining what it is like inside the mind. They take their shape from an invisible presence that provides a conceptual mould for what we actually see. I suppose this presence is creativity in a form--or in a place-- that we can grasp. I mean, if we associate it with the mind, we can pull it into the terms of reference we are familiar with, but is it that easy to capture?

J.G. You do what you do at the time and maybe later you have some sense of it - you cannot take anything for granted - it is better to have no sense of it at all when in the studio.- you have to delete all that before entering. You connect to it and get on with it. Some people, places and situations generate a powerful presence - sometimes it is very very quite, others intense - you have to be open to it.

RM: The works from 2007 onwards in the show are under a tremendous amount of pressure, they are all wrapping around something that is clearly dense and powerful. We are not simply getting an expression of the difficulty of containing spirit in a material cage, but of something that involves a physical wrestling match. The sculptor is like Jacob wrestling the angel, a being of real physical force and resistance, not just an idea...

J.G. Maybe it's a metaphor for this time and place - I had not thought about the cattle slaughtering and was surprised when it popped out - it makes a certain sense to me as I mulled over it today. Not all the series I am working on at present are dealing with this place in this way - the open liner or partly open series seem different - I do not want to be conscious of everything I am doing otherwise there will be nothing left for the sculptures to do.

RM: The fact that many of your works relate to one another by being part of a distinctive series is one of the things that makes them so elusive and tantalising. Each variation on the theme seems to reveal a different facet of what is being tracked down in the series as a whole. It is as if you are under an obligation to represent something that keeps on changing form, like Proteus. When do you know that a series is finished? Is any series ever finished?

J. G.
What seems to be happening now is that all the series seem to be running parallel. I remember talking to particular individuals who opened my mind to looking at the world in very different ways. Any idea has many possibilities and I like to explore these as quickly as possible so that they can start chatting to one another - that makes my life far more interesting - like meeting a group of people and every one is contributing to the conversation - it's exhilarating and stimulating, opening up new worlds to peer into. When you read a book at sixteen and then twenty years later - it's a whole new experience - the book remains the same - the experience is always in the space between you and what you are reading, be it text, object or music. You have to engage with that - you cannot dictate nor pre - empt it.

RM: In a sense then, every single work remains in a dialogue with others, that might be taken up and extended at any time. Do you feel they remain 'open' in this sense, despite achieving formal closure?

J.G. Yes - they are like a family on a journey - each picks up on differing aspects and chats about it to one another. It is wonderful when that happens - you listen and then have to rush around dealing with their instructions.
RM:  And each new exhibition offers a chance to stage that conversation.  You have introduced two elements into the title of this show--'Light' and 'Listen'.  'Light' is a phenomenon that is easy to grasp in relation to your work, which provides a constantly changing environment for it, catching it, intensifying it, deflecting it.  With regard to listening, are there different frequencies that we are supposed to be hearing with our mind's ear?  Human voices are not the only voices that might be speaking in these works--perhaps they are not human voices at all?

You connect with people, animals, places in ways where there is no need to explain - the chemistry of two people dancing, sometimes it is electric, at other times not so. I remember riding a horse in the countryside and coming on a derelict mansion - neither the horse or dog would go near it - I decided to go and explore - I got just inside the door and quickly turned around and left - I experienced a very disturbed and disturbing presence.

RM: You have spent many years working with steel in particular. The succession of different series has been accompanied by different ways of working with this material, treating it as capable of behaving like a variety of different substances. In recent work, it looks like you have been folding and stitching and suturing it, as if it were canvas or textile or even skin.

Stainless Steel is still offering me opportunities through its many forms and surface possibilities. Its many uses in the world - i.e. cooking , brewing, industrial, medicine and construction - bring new vistas - I am still enjoying that relationship. What generates that relationship is what matters - what ever material/processes engage you positively that's where you go. It generated so many forms of light, and light is what is so revealing. Your elegance is to your Art and not to material.

RM: But there are many materials that have a range of qualities and uses. Why steel in particular?

J.G. It is a very versatile and forgiving material which comes in many forms and is uses though out our culture. We get on well together.


National Portrait Gallery, London

John Gibbons Portraits

Text from a limited edition set of 5 Postcards

John Gibbons Portraits

Paul Moorhouse

During a career that now extends for almost thirty years, John Gibbons has secured a reputation as one of Britain’s leading abstract sculptors. Like Anthony Caro, with whom he worked as an assistant in the late 1970s, his work is closely associated with large, floor-based constructions in welded steel. From the early 1980s he used industrial scrap, which he assembled into complex, almost architectural arrangements. Since 1996 he has used linear stainless steel rods, creating cage-like forms. This emphasis on abstract, formal qualities has meant that his involvement with portraiture has tended to be overlooked. However, Gibbons has always maintained that, although apparently abstract, his sculpture is a ‘reflection on the nature of what it is to be human’. Indeed, as the display mounted at the National Portrait Gallery, London shows, his work’s evocation of a human presence is both surprising and specific.
The display comprises five sculptures covering the period from 1981 to the present. The earliest, Darragh’s Place, marks the emergence of Gibbons’s distinctive way of working in which formal issues and physical structure go hand in hand with allusion and a range of subtle references. In common with his other early work, this sculpture began as a suggestion of place. Born in County Clare in Western Ireland, Gibbons was raised as a Roman Catholic and the holy sites, rituals and sacred objects associated with his religious upbringing informed his sculpture. The small, cube-like shape of Darragh’s Place recalls a tabernacle or a reliquary box, both being containers of a spiritual nature. However, while working on the  piece, increasingly he saw it in terms of a human head, recognising the associations it prompted with a particular person, namely Darragh, his son. As a result, the sculpture developed as a formal structure that encloses an individual’s characteristics and personality. Darragh’s Place may thus be seen as a metaphorical portrait - an abstract evocation of his son’s head expressed as a kind of ‘container’ for experience.
These ideas underpin the other portraits that Gibbons made in the early 1980s. One of these Portrait of Sharon (his daughter), also forms part of the installation. From the mid-1980s he put aside such references, focusing on larger sculptures that suggest a non-specific human presence. It was not until 1999 that he returned to Portraiture, this time working with the different formal language using stainless steel that he had developed in the preceding three years. Three recent works are included and these evoke members of his family and friends. In some instances more than one individual is suggested by the same sculpture. Now employing more open forms, these sculptures continue to engage with the sitter’s inner life - that mysterious place which Gibbons perceives at the core of portraiture.

'John Gibbons The Mayo Drawings'

Jesus College, University of Cambridge


Rod Mengham

The Mayo drawings of John Gibbons were produced during a concentrated period of time and all in the same place.  They carry no obvious markers of geographical or historical origin, but there is no doubt of their interrelatedness, of their breathing the same atmosphere.  They are all under the pressure of a common creative principle; their abstract designs are multifarious, but this does not prevent them from seeming to integrate into a single vision of an overarching phenomenon.  And there is something arrestingly compulsive about them, as if they are the graphs of an addiction, representations of drawing as an obsessive activity, driven and almost unwilled.  One can just imagine the artist picking up the next sheet of paper in the moment of finishing with the last.

      Many of the drawings also resemble windows or portals into a non-human world, of what the human eye cannot see without microscopic or telescopic enhancement, systems and networks that extend beyond what the human mind can grasp.  Their multiple, simultaneous formations of shape and pattern seem to capture the stages of birth and growth of intelligent matter, of a process that combines unconscious prompting with intentional response. In their totality they comprise an atlas of the invisible and the unknown, a logbook of soundings for a submerged presence, which the artist responds to like a pilot, sensing the contours of an ever-changing environment.

      The viewer faced with an array of these drawings has to tackle a sense of vertigo. There is typically no starting point for the eye, and no resting-place for it either, no vertical or horizontal hold, only a world of proliferating events that cannot be brought visually under control. And in many cases, there is more than one plane for the artist’s mark-making, more than one layer of material, more than one event horizon.  The resulting palimpsest is a history of different attempts to track the course of a persistent disturbance in the artist’s field of awareness, the quiver or tremor that makes visible the inherent structure of what holds his attention.  This exhibition of thirty drawings reads like a succession of waves that bring up to the surface a hidden intricacy; it functions like a seismic array whose object is not the detection of inimical force but of creative delirium: its improvised geometry is endlessly reformed and unlimited in range. And its feeling for tremors transfers into an art of exhilaration.


The drawings were made possible by a fellowship generously supported by The Ballinglen Arts Foundation, Ballycastle, County Mayo, Ireland


'Mapping Form, Drawing & Sculpture'

Macroom Town Hall Gallery, Macroom, Ireland

ISBN 978-0-9556528-1-3   0-9556528-1-2


John Gibbons interviewed by Rod Mengham'

RM: Although all your sculptures are very palpably worked, even wrestled and forced into a certain physical condition, they seem to be intended as containers or vehicles for something that cannot be seen, but which the viewer is given a sense of. Energy does not merely skid across their surfaces but seems to have been recruited in a tremendous effort of containment. Do you think of these works as somehow enclosing a source of power or energy?

JG: All living matter has energy and for me Art engages with that energy in life—it is about that experience and where it takes you.

RM: The sculpture you are showing is one from the ‘Presence’ series that has been emerging over the last couple of years. It seems very indicative to me that a sculpture very like this one was shown first in a religious context—in Winchester Cathedral in 2007—since these brooding forms seem to carry associations with totemic objects giving a visual form to an unseen presence.

JG: Religions deal with the ‘unknown’ in our world – there is a sense of presence in particular places, people and objects that defy explanation – or perhaps we have problems engaging with this presence because it is not an everyday event or it makes demands on us that generate discomfort. I think making sculpture for me is about rooting me in the physical world while acknowledging otherness. Buddhists talk of young and old souls – it makes a certain sense.

RM: There’s a very paradoxical arrangement then, whereby strong physical presences, objects that are very emphatically taking up space, with their weight bearing down on the world, are the ones that can speak to us most eloquently about something that is disembodied. The sculptures in your ‘Angels’ series are very similar in this respect—they defy gravity yet they are lumpy and seem to carry ballast; are both freighted and delicate, with armour plating round an imagined tincture of spirit

JG: Spirit has character, and is defined by its individuality – I do not understand why certain places have this power – you can spot them in the landscape whether at home or abroad – religious buildings deal with this aspect but you still need people to engage with it to bring it to life. I like the sense that sculpture is just about holding on to the ground – irrespective of how big or heavy they are.

RM: This is reminiscent of the way some of the early modernists spoke about their work. Is there any connection back to that way of thinking and working in your practice? Both the composition and the reception of the work involve being caught up in a set of dynamic relations that the surface of the steel preserves a record of, or perhaps a kind of musical score rather than a record, an encoding of the energy that the viewer can reactivate in some degree?

JG: All Art has energy and life in it – that’s how we connect with it irrespective of time or material – it is no different to a great piece of writing or music score – you have an experience through that engagement.

RM: Although you have used a variety of materials in the past, for many years now the majority of your sculptures have been made in steel. What is it about steel that has compelled you to use it so often; why is it the best medium for the themes and preoccupations of your work?

JG: Steel is a very forgiving material, readily available, incredibly versatile and used throughout our living and working lives. I have been using Stainless Steel over the past ten years or so because I have a fascination for the light it generates – it has an extraordinary range, which I am still discovering. I like the way it is there and not there at the same time – changing with the light and as you move about it – like a cloud shadow moving across a landscape or a word on a mindscape.

RM: It also requires a great deal of effort and coordination of physical and cognitive and imaginative energies. You know when you’ve been using it! It engrosses your whole being in the process of creation in a way few materials can, I would imagine.

JG: I am still fascinated by the nature of the material in terms of where it takes me – discovering new ways of using it exposes other more buried places – observing how the material responds to being cut by a disc - falling away like a hinge – opens up another way of seeing – the sculpture will then demand a very different way of engaging with light which takes you somewhere else. There is work that is incubating – unknown to you – triggered by such observations. Experiences of life, opportunities, other art, be it sculpture, painting or music will equally expose and help to focus. When working you are completely connected, there are no boundaries – you are in a place where everything is connected – all part of a greater whole.

RM: That resonates with the evident connections that exist between your drawings—they all seem to integrate into a single vision of an overarching phenomenon. And there is something very compulsive about them, as if they are the graphs of an addiction, they represent drawing as an obsessive activity, unwilled and driven—they give one the impression that as soon as you have finished with one sheet of paper, you have to pick up the next.

JG: The drawings in this show were worked on as a whole by and large — they covered the studio walls and I was moving about working on whichever one gained my attention. Mostly my drawing's can be worked on over many years in very different locations

RM: Many of the drawings were produced during residencies; continuous but limited periods of time in specific places. In what way or to what degree do they relate to the specific times and places of their composition?

JG: These particular drawings were made in Ballycastle, Co. Mayo on a Fellowship at The Ballinglen Arts Foundation. This was the first time I had gone to make drawing in a studio—I usually draw when traveling, in hotel rooms, apartments, rented houses. This was very different—it was making new demands on me. One of the great advantages was the place itself and the landscapes and seascapes—as well as a cupboard filled with left-over inks, acrylic and oil paint, which was great fun to discover and play with. I brought a lot of different kinds of paper – some of which I had wanted to explore for some time. Occasionally I can see references to the locations I have stayed in – it is not important for me to know this – no one place is isolated from all the other places you have been to.

RM: Many of the drawings also resemble maps of the non-human world, of what the human eye cannot see without microscopic or telescopic enhancement, systems and networks that extend beyond what the human mind can grasp.

JG: I think the human mind sees a lot more than the eye – you need to listen through your eyes. The drawings filter into my sculptures over time—I become aware of this process but do not seek it out—it is better left to its own devices!

RM: There is typically no starting point for the eye, and no resting-place for it either, no vertical or horizontal hold, only a world of multiple simultaneous events that cannot be brought visually under control.

JG: I am curious about the many levels we exist and are placed in—a short flight and you could be in the desert of north Africa or the Atlantic shore—how does that affect your perception?

RM: Has your work simply acquired more conceptual layers as you have built it up?

JG: Nothing exists with out concept – I prefer to let things grown in their own way and listen for instructions.