John Gibbons

Catalogue Text, 1978-1990


'John Gibbons'

Flowers East , London

ISBN 1 873362 00 5

Tim Marlow

Back in 1961, in an exhibition entitled 'The Art Of Assemblage', William Seitz proclaimed retrospectively that "collage and related modes of construction manifest a predisposition' that is characteristically modern." Assemblage, as opposed to carving or modelling, is a quintessentially twentieth-century method and the basis of a powerful sculptural tradition. John Gibbons works within that tradition and has done so for nearly twenty years, partly because he has a disposition that is characteristically modern (though indisputably he can never be accused of being a fashion-victim), but not least because, when he first went to school and considered modelling or carving from the figure, he felt that "Rodin had cleaned up". Eschewing the notion, along with other sculptors in the mid-seventies, that Caro essentially had "cleaned up" as far as abstract welded steel sculpture was concerned, Gibbons' work increasingly stands as a monument both to the valid continuity of a sculptural tradition and the fecund potential which remains therein.

A sculpture, for Gibbons, begins not so much with a tangible idea but with a vaguer yet deeper core of 'feeling' or 'sensation'; "then", he says "I start doing it". Sculptural process is invariably perceived and described in terms of a dialogue, a dialogue between artist and material, whatever the tradition, whatever the material. There is no doubting Gibbons' affinity for steel, and all his work expresses, in varying forms, the characteristics of this material, form its flexibility - in the bowed column or pipe of 'E' - to its tensility in the thin steel of 'The Prophet'. Ultimately, however, "steel is just a material, a means to an end" and in Gibbons' work, the end depends and thrives on the sculptor's total control over his means.

In the Post Industrial Age there is a tendency to perceive iron and steel structures, particularly in rusted form, as nostalgic evocations of an industrial past. Gibbons' work smacks of little or no nostalgia. The origins of his sculptural forms are plainly industrial tanks, piping, girders and so forth - but once cut and welded they become expressions of the artist's will and their relationship to former function is atavistic.

In 'Consent', where perhaps steel elements initially resemble past function most closely, an imposing orange frame, at once scaffold and crane-like, sits atop a welded plinth. Although an allusion to the gallows might serve to act as a warning, for Gibbons the structure embodies the notion of prosperity: for every crane visible across the metropolitan skyline a building follows; beneath a vast corporate and commercial tower a steel framework stands, the invisible structure of the modernist world. 'Consent' is both the stripping away to reveal the essence and the accretion of essence to comprise the whole.

Built into the front of the framework are two elliptical curves which seem to disclose further an already open structure whilst at the same time enhancing the sense of the sculpture as a fertility symbol. The vulva-like opening re-occurs elsewhere, a rare example of a repeated central motif in Gibbons' work. In the smaller scale 'Goddess' the allusion to and indeed celebration of fecundity and female sexuality is explicit. In 'Temptation' the joyful expressiveness of the smaller work is tempered by a sense of guilt and reticence, for through the opening is a dark, inviting but seemingly forbidden unknown. It is often but nebulously claimed that works of sculpture reflect the human condition. Gibbons confronts a central element of that condition, sexuality, head-on and with a sensuality rarely evident in steel sculpture since the death of Gonzalez.

Gibbons' work has an immense physical presence which exists regardless of size. The large work confronts the viewer more actively and more immediately because they operate on a human scale and invite bodily communion: one could step, crawl or climb into anyone of them. The niches, columns, steps and other such elements give to the work a pronounced architectural dimension, but this is shared with the smaller works without ever reducing then to mere maquettes or models. Whatever the scale, Gibbons articulates both form and space in a way that is perfectly judged, however nonchalant it might appear at first, and is the result of months or even years of consideration (it is worth mentioning here that each piece rarely comes to fruition in less than two years). Likewise, whether painted or polished, rusted, scraped or simply left alone, every inch of surface has been analysed, affirmed and consequently activated.

Gibbons' command of his formal sculptural vocabulary does not preclude an intuitive inventiveness which helps to ensure that he inspires rather than dictates the aesthetic experience of the viewer. The gentle, lyrical rhythm which ascends through 'E', without being obvious contains few surprises. The piece, inspired by memories of a close relative, has a calm and understated dignity. 'The Prophet', at once sentinel-like and hieratic, is imposing frontal but complex interplay of space and form, of void and matter, reverberates throughout the piece and induces a sense of rhythmical grandeur that is unexpected and, without ever being bombastic, verges on the baroque.

There is no question of Gibbons invoking the rhetoric of the baroque: "I hate its vulgarity masquerading as gracefulness... it's a sham." Any hint of decoration, pomp and ceremony are eschewed, nothing in his  sculpture is superficial. Yet there is what might be described as an architectonic sense of drama, baroque in its origins, however restrained, however muted, which underlies 'The Prophet' and to a greater extent, 'St. Matthew's Passion' which gives to this most ambitious of all Gibbons' recent work a confidence and complexity which is monumental.

Without considering them over-literally, title may identify, differentiate or distantly echo the tone of the sculpture in Gibbons' oeuvre. 'St. Matthew's Passion' reverberates with the metaphorical sounds of Bach's polyphonous masterpiece. Sculptural forms co-exist with a coherent whole in a manner that could be well described as contrapuntal. The steel framework has an intricate yet emphatic rhythm which binds the work together without neutralising the subtle but essential dissonance, particularly at the sides along the top of the sculpture. Ultimately, however, Gibbons' 'St. Matthew's Passion' is neither homage nor three-dimensional paraphrase of Bach's great work, which frequently fills the sculptor's studio. Of far greater importance is the possibility of transcendence which Gibbons finds so strong in Bach's music.

Standing in front of 'St. Matthew's passion', the viewer feels drawn towards the niche, a space which seems to exist for the human body and yet is devoid of corporeal presence. It is this physical absence which seems to heighten the sense of metaphysical resonance. There are certain allusions to religious architecture, not least to the ikonostasis of an Orthodox church, stripped of ornament and of icon, which separates the congregation from the sanctuary whilst focusing all attention on the Holiest of Holies and the realm of the spirit which lies beyond it. But this is, perhaps, to overelaborate and mystify rather than enlighten. as Goethe wrote in his 'Naturliche Tochter': "speak of mystery not mysteriously".

The impact of all Gibbons' sculpture begins with their emphatic physical presence. Metaphor and allusion ultimately fall away and without diluting the metaphysical resonance one returns invariably to the visual experience of the sculpture itself.


'John Gibbons: Sculpture 1981-86'

Serpentine Gallery, London

Michael Harrison, 'TEMPLES OF THE SPIRIT'

John Gibbons sculptures are not of anything through they constantly relate to thing he sees in everyday life. Since childhood days when he explored ruined castles in his native Ireland, architecture has been important – its proportions responding to human scale, the sense of what is inside expressed by what is outside, and the functions of its details.

Coming back from his studio in Woolwich the other day Gibbons talked about the tremendous  charge he gets from his now fairly frequent trips to the United States. In recent years he has exhibited and worked there for short periods. The American architectural landscape, both urban and agricultural, is of a wholly different kind to what we normally see here. He spoke of immense silos and barns, and mentioned the roof of the City Corps Building in New York, which he later found feeding into his sculpture, taken in with the fresh eye of a visitor in foreign parts. The pace of America is exhilarating and also the feeling that its culture is changing and on the move, not established. England provides the home base where stimuli can be digested and given time to act.

Gibbon has been working on two distinct scales. The small sculpture, three foot tall or so, set up on bases, the large ones, man-size, rising from the ground seven feet and upwards. The sculpture called Homage is like a sentry box, apparently symmetrical until you start looking, but entry is barred and the space is occupied. The occupant is featureless, rounded away from us, cast into shadow at the top.

Each of these sculptures has the suggestion of steps and a doorway. Each has a definite front, back and sides. You are enticed around the back to Place of Dreams but met with a flat wall of chequer-plate sheet steel and a barred doorway. You peer through but are hurried back round to the front. This sculpture took five years to reach its resolution and underwent radical changes. The opening  at the back only appeared when the domed half-tank was removed to the side as an apse or niche, a convex guard to its concave interior. The inside of the sculpture is empty except for a cylindrical element rising to table height from the floating floor. On the top a roofscape , which Gibbons suspects derives from a photograph of a Cypriot church, reaches far beyond this domestic scale.

Gibbons’ sculptures are painted, almost imperceptibly at times, perhaps to heighten or mask the given colour, but always to a purpose. Tomorrow has two storeys and is the most open of all the sculptures. Beyond the steps and over the lip the spaces are shallow and walls appear blank. At waist level on the left, shifting planes take us quickly round the corner to a sharp surprise. The original sky blue of the upper box and shrill chrome yellow of the bottom one, only glimpsed through brown overpainting at the front, are left glaringly exposed. With its shelf and pigeon-hole beneath, this is the sharpest focus of the sculpture, but it is only a side and we cannot settle. We have to return to the teasing vacancy of the front, where the eye is denied but our attention is unnervingly  held.

In the studio we had talked about naming sculptures. Like children they are given names for ease of identification and to introduce them into the world, but also as part of coming to terms with their character. While a piece is being made a name might occur and be tried on to see whether its tone fits. Gibbons’ titles – Place of Dreams, Tomorrow, Ancestral Watch all suggest something beyond the immediate present.

The largest sculpture in this exhibition was first called ‘Remembrance’ but this was changed to the more active and forward reaching Desire. Its lower two storeys are framed by a silvered doorway. At the bottom is space to crouch into. The twin middle compartments, at cupboard height, are deeper. We are pulled into the right half almost by vertigo, but stalled half-way in the left where a green bar holds sides together and apart. The third storey is out of reach, a high warehouse door closed against intrusion. The 'door' is actually the bottom of a shallow box, whose outer faces and those of the tank-like boxes below, the sides and back of the sculpture, are painted a protective and prohibiting black. We can see into the sculpture only from the front.

This insistence on frontality is most emphasised in some of the smaller sculptures where architectural reference is most overt. The doorways of Ancestral Watch and Place of After Time are firmly closed. Their near symmetry and upright stance suggest human form and architecture begins to take on hints of anatomy – stepped bases doubling as feet, roofs as headpieces. Yet, like the boxes and tanks which Gibbons has used in some of his sculptures, these are containers rather than status, dwellings to be inhabited, through not physically, nor simply by our intellects or imaginations. They are, like our bodies, temples in which our spirits are found.



'John Gibbons Sculpture'

Nicola Jacobs Gallery, London

Geoff Rigden, August 1981

The new sculpture of John Gibbons indicate a return to the kind of clarity and directness that was typical of his earlier work, qualities which to some extent were subdued in favour of other concerns and retrieved here in a new way.
The foremost characteristic of his sculpture of 1976–7 is epitomised by the title of the series : ‘Uprights’. At this time he was aligning himself with other younger sculptors working predominantly out of Smith and Caro; I think there was particular empathy with the work of Roger Williams, the American sculptor, in their feel for proportion and spare, linear design. Although some sculptures erred towards slightness, as opposed to understatement, the best were delicate and firm simultaneously, as in ‘ Quintessence’ and ‘Night-Watch’(1977).

An awareness of this slightness and the desire to bring more substance to bear led to works such as ‘After Midnight’ (1977). It is frankly derived from David Smith’s ‘Forge Bench’ but with the ‘ … form more abstracted', 1, and it heralds the use of solid elements to be developed later. This and several other sculptures were exhibited at the Serpentine Gallery in Spring 1978. In an appreciative review Terence Maloon referred to’… the funky organic suggestions…’ therein , and how,’ …even when the work is spare, small and relatively slight (in weight) it is undeniably monumental in feeling’. 2   

In one such sculpture, ‘Repose’ (1977), Gibbons began to manipulate the steel in a more aggressive way, altering its found state by hammering and bending the elements, exploting its malleability. Over the next three years this approach was to be taken further in one way or another.
One feature that persists in subsequent works, along with the use of weightier elements, is a sense of compression, as in the sculpture ‘Parisian Wrap’ (1978). A squarish block of steel (about the size of a fruit – cake) is partially wrapped in a sheet of thinner steel, then apparently tied with a string-like bar around its base. Certain sculptures of this period veer towards surrealist imagery (‘Meddle’ 1978 for example), not in a full-brown way, but it may have been a sense of this that Gibbons found necessary to curtail.
The following series of lead sculptures of 1978-9 while still ’compressed’ and ’heavy’ elementally were removed of such imagery. The natural properties of the material were taken to their logical conclusions. He cast, folded, rolled and welded it into envelope or wallet-like forms, finally admitting its own particular inertness to dictate the direction.(Gibbons acknowledge that some of Michael Steiner’s ‘folded ‘ sculptures assisted the course of this series.)
It seems that in the last five or so years Gibbons' procedure in sculpture has been to more or less alternate between ‘funkiness’ and astringency. That is to put it broadly.

It is rather as if wherever he has detected repetition or mannerism beginning to pervade his art he has abruptly changed his approach. Sometimes stressing linearity, sometimes mass or scale, occasionally changing medium,e.g from steel to lead.(In 1979 he worked for a short period in clay.)
After the lead series he returned to steel. The resulting works are mostly vertical, about 18 inches high, and are his densest, most detailed sculptures hitherto.
Recently it has been a pre-occupation amongst ambitious younger British sculptors to scrutinize the roots and direction of their subject (those I mean, who haven’t succumbed to craft, light engineering, ‘folkiness‘ or theatre). One of the manifestations of this has been a reaction against the pictorial and illusory and to affirm volume and factuality, The small dense vertical sculptures reflect something of this reaction without belonging wholeheartedly to it. They also evoke something of the guidance and insight he has sought in Indian bronzes, African carving etc. as well as the natural world.
‘But it was as though Matisse (like Monet) felt, that in order to expand the range of easel-painting, he had to deconvolute it and make it centrifugal in organisation instead of centripetal. (Of course neither Matisse nor Monet felt literally’ required’; all they did was go where temperament and inspiration impelled them – and where  the circumstances of art in their time permitted them to go). 3  
I borrow this observation from Greenberg since in my view it so succinctly transfers to the present circumstances of Gibbons' art. The new sculptures, made over the last six months, shed the ‘convolution’ of the previous phase and through centrifugality as such is not played up (there is movement throughout their parts) there is something of that. There is also considerable illusion as well as presence, austerity as well as richness, grace and rhythm.
I would suggest that the ‘alterations’ in Gibbons' past work derive entirely from ‘temperament and inspiration’. In the case of these sculptures the inspiration was born in his reaction to the raw steel components, it is his temperament to improvise and seek adventure and this is expressed to a high degree.

1. Ben Jones: ‘A New Wave in Sculpture’ Artscribe 1977

2. Terence Maloon : “’Spring Show I’ Serpentine gallery” Artscribe 1978

3. Clement Greenberg : ‘Influences of matisse’ 1973



'The Material Object'

Hayden Gallery, MIT, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA

Kathy Halbreich, introduction

John Gibbons’ work grows out of a profound attachment to and understanding of his materials. If asked to conjure an image of mild steel, most would think of its rigid and planer state, freshly rolled from the mill. Gibbons’ immediacy of handling undermines this association. The intuitive, expressionistic quality of the modest-sized steel pieces, completed recently during a cross-Atlantic visit to Sculpture Space in Utica, New York, refers simultaneously to aggregates of ore and to drifts of molten steel. We are reminded of the original properties of the material as well as of the freedom an artist working with steel may achieve.

While the juxtaposition of sharp-edged and fluid shapes allows for a clear articulation of parts, the sculptures seem to have been wrestled into an energetic and compact whole. Elements are packed densely and fused by the heat of the welding process. Despite the clear evidence of the artist’s direct, physical dialogue with his material, the sculptures escape theatricality. The works possess an organic naturalness and completeness. One feels the steel sculptures have been unearthed rather than composed. Though dynamic, none of the elements are poised precariously. The tension between mass and line, reflected clearly in the muscular drawing, binds rather than fragments the work.The density of drawing seems characteristic of both the material and the working process.

This lack of contrivance and coyness perhaps is seen most clearly in the small lead pieces. In ‘Flat Back’, for instance, a single sheet of lead appears to have been folded and pounded into a slim envelope, volume. Like all of Gibbons’ work, this piece is dignified and present without being heroic in scale. Finally, the sculpture is not a statement about the history of art, but rather a self-effacing artistic statement.



'John Gibbons Small Sculptures'

Project Gallery, Dublin.

An introduction by John McLean

For more than a decade (i.e since the start of high pressure art publicism ) so many claims have been made asserting this or that is the most advanced kind of sculpture, even those who where taken in are now suspecting that the pace of development in art may not have been any faster than before, and that the only difference between the present and the past is that novelty occupies the platform in the burgeoning art press whose values are of the headline and not of art.

Among the myriad participants in the babel of claim and counter-claim are those who put presentation before the work itself, and do so to such an extent that their effort becomes window dressing or stage-setting and nothing but that. They dignify themselves with the title Environmental Artists and usually announce the death of painting and sculpture as we know them. But we can all now see that their aesthetic is the same as, e.g., the Oxford Street Store’s, even through vitiated by artiness and self-importance.

John Gibbons never fell back on the device of padding out a commonplace idea like say, repetition of a single motif, with techniques lifted from the stage or shop window. Even as its most economical and open, his work has always been dense in feeling. His approach is inspired, not mechanical. The sculpture in this show is physically denser, not only than any work of his hitherto but than any other abstract sculpture. It is the opposite of drawing in space, of the sculpture for which the American David Smith or the Englishman Anthony Caro are best known. Without losing any clarity in the articulation of the parts, he exploits close packing in an exciting and original way. Nothing for example, could be more compacted than the 51/2 “ x 10” x 91/2” “ Parisian Wrap”, yet it is far from being a single lump. The roles played by the solid sharp-edged cuboid core, the wrapping and the feeling, and from these difference is won power not through exaggeration, but more truly sculptural, gratifications. To have assembled such a body of work is as rare as it is delightful.




New Sculpture: Three Shows, New Sculpture II

Ikon Gallery, Birmingham

John Gibbons

Richard Stokes

John Gibbons is an Irishman, born in Ennis, Co. Clare. He did not come to England until 1968 when he stayed in London for a short time. he returned to Ireland to study art in Limerick and was there between 1969 and 1970, going on to study at Cork School of Art for two years. In 1971, he visited the Alistair McAlpine Gift exhibition at the Tate Gallery. Gibbons who had not been exposed to much in the way of avant-garde sculpture in Ireland found this an eye-opening experience, “like going into a new city”. Seeing this exhibition was to be a turning point, and that summer he resolved to go back to Ireland to work for a place at St. Martins, the source of much of the sculpture in the show.

Gibbons was successful in this enterprise, and won his place at St. martins in 1972. After leaving College, where he studied for four years, he acquired the use of a S.P.A.C.E. studio in Stepney Green, East London. He, unlike many other artists, does not teach in art  colleges, which leaves him with plenty of time to spend working in his studio. For the past few years his sculpture has been fabricated in steel; he had previously worked in wood but found that unless one resorted to carving, timber could be a limiting medium. His work was put together (welded) from smaller components, very much in the established Modernist tradition which derives from David Smith, Anthony Caro et al. Whilst his works are constructed, he takes care to ensure that they do not have the raw industrial feel that much recent sculpture has had. He is not afraid to incorporate some finely modelled elements into his works. He utilises a sophisticated technique of bending, beating and cutting up irregular sections of steel tube, then rewelding these together in different positions, distorting the tube to create naturalistic undulating surfaces. This is an effect that could be achieved by using a casting process but he prefers a more direct approach. The resulting tubular forms can be seen in the bases of both ‘Cross Country’ (illus.) and ‘ After Midnight’.

New steel is only generally available in a limited variety of sections and second-hand steel is often formed into recognisable shapes giving clues to its former usage. In order to avoid the problems of his raw material retaining too much of its original identity, Gibbons has created a stockpile of pieces of steel that he has already modified. The use of these oddments can occasionally give his work the appearance of ‘objects trouves‘ from a still life. This is especially true of ‘After Midnight‘ which is reminiscent of david Smith’s ‘Forge Bench’.
Looking at John Gibbons‘ work one can see the influences from his art college training, yet clearly visible are signs of a growing independency from established modernist traditions. Gibbons‘ concern for formalism does not mean that he excludes all allusion to real life. His work possess strong lyrical qualities.