John Gibbons

Catalogue Text, 2003-2005


'John Gibbons  Charles Tyrrell'

Taylor Galleries, Dublin

ISBN 0-9551415-0-8

'John Gibbons and Charles Tyrrell: A Dialogue'

Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith

This temporary coming together of the work of two quite different artists is more akin to a conversation than collaboration. Born of a sense of mutual respect that gradually evolved over a number of years before they actually met, as well as a growing degree of curiosity about the workings of each other's art, it is more of a dialogue than a duet. It is a dialogue in which two self-assured voices remain distinct throughout a mutually enriching exchange. Born within a year of each other into comparable cultural contexts in mid-twentieth-century, small-town Ireland, John Gibbons and Charles Tyrell have followed rather different routes as they developed their distinctive artistic practices within the broad domain of late modernist sculpture and painting, respectively. Based in the heart of inner-city London since the nineteen-seventies, Gibbons has pursued a brand of mostly linear, welded sculpture that extends and refines the legacy of Julio Gonzalez, David Smith and Anthony Caro in various, equally intriguing directions. During this time he has, as he himself puts it, found a number of different ways of 'opening a space' for himself within his tradition in order to stop himself from 'bumping into ghosts'. These avenues of exploration have at different stages ranged from invocations of architecture to subtle suggestions of the erotogenic. Tyrell, on the other hand, has chosen to live and work for quite a few years now in the wilds of West Cork. There he has practiced a rigorous variety of formal abstraction in which, as he describes it, intimations of the spectacular surrounding landscape tend to somewhat reluctantly accommodated within certain specific works rather than consciously courted as a matter of course. 'In those works in which there is a particular landscape resonance,' he says, 'it is there because the painting itself invited it in.' Otherwise, his natural inclination is to resist such incursions of the real into his bounded pictorial world.

The range of what must have been largely unforeseen resonances within and across the bodies of work presented here together is amplified by the sensitive orchestration of individual and grouped paintings and sculptures over the gallery's four rooms, each of which has a remarkably different temper. The relative austerity of certain individual works by both artists is subtly modified and enhanced by suggestive juxtapositions that give equal weight to the divergences as well as the points of contact between them. One obvious common concern is a shared interest in a broad notion of duality or dichotomy, a fascination with the dialogical aspect of a unique work of art as reflected in the tension between its constituent formal elements, which are sometimes paired or mirrored. At the heart of Tyrrell's painting is a concern with 'relationships', with an intuitive search for some sort of accommodation between competing systems, fields or gestures that is fundamentally abstract in nature and only suggestive of the wider domain of human or social relationships by a loose form of analogy. Yet he acknowledges that his particular interest in Gibbons' work had partly to do with what he saw as the increasing confidence with which his colleague succeeded in connecting the formal language of abstraction to elements of the experience world. As Tyrrell puts it, 'I was impressed by how outward-looking the work is.' While Tyrrell's comments indicate that this 'outward-looking' aspect of an art that has it basis in formal abstraction constitutes important common ground, the marked difference between the two artists' attitude to titling their works is indicative of some equally fundamental differences. Tyrrell's systematic numbering of otherwise untitled works may be taken as a disavowal of allusion, narrative and referentiality, which is in keeping with the modernist credo that the destiny of each distinct art form is the refinement of those characteristics that are peculiar to it and which serve to distinquish it from other art forms. Gibbons, in contrast, evidently has no such misgivings and is quite content to invite the world into the work, as it were, through the deployment of highly suggestive, often consciously lyrical titles. 'And the Earth Changed Shape' (2004-05), for example, is the title given to a strangely mutated stainless globe, whereas 'For All To See'(2004) refers to another, rather different steel sculpture, the decidedly complex and controlled structure of which suggests that there may even be a degree of irony involved in the titling process. The title of a slightly earlier work, 'The Weavers Story' (1999-2000) a beautifully rhythmic arrangement of stainless steel rods, calls attention to a certain affinity between fine art and the applied arts, whereas titles such as 'Song of the Soul' (2004) and 'As One' (2001-02) are more open-endedly and unabashedly poetic.

A notable aspect of this exhibition is the range and variety evident within the work of each of the two participants. Gibbons, for instance, seems equally at home working with open or closed volumes, and the sense of enclosure, or play of revelation and concealment, that is common to both varieties of work is nevertheless very differently realized from one to the other. A similar versatility is evident in his handling of scale over a range of works that vary in size from 'Bermondsey Wrap' (2005), which is a mere 13cm tall, to 'Om'(2000-2002), a sculpture in stainless steel, copper and wood, which measures 194x106x92cms. Given the central importance accorded to the plinth, or rather the decision to dispense with it, in the development of modernist sculpture, Gibbons once again displays a high degree of inventiveness in the placement of the works in the show. These are variously floor-bound, placed on plinths or in alcoves, set on wheels or constructed wooden 'runways', or, in the case of one work, 'Angel III', suspended from the ceiling. This specific work, which is one of a series of related sculptures, is a particularly fine example of Gibbons' capacity to meld sculptural forms that seem markedly organic with those that are more obviously industrial in nature. In his work the obscurely erotic imagery alluded to earlier in passing sometimes takes the form of pendulous, scrotal sacs that are also reminiscent of gourds, whereas on other occasions it takes the form of an orifice or labial opening leading into the centre of the sculpture. 'Angel III' combines both these forms in a work that invokes the celestial while obliquely reminding us that the human body is, in its own way, a remarkable piece of engineering. Gibbons has always been less interested in evoking the strictly gendered individual body than in gesturing toward the combination of male and female aspects that may be thought of as fundamental to all human life.

Tyrrell's range is equally impressive, especially in view of the set of strict, self-imposed formal limitations that have variously defined his work over the years. There is a world of difference between the commanding presence and forbidding frontality of a large vertical oil painting on canvas such as 'C9.05', which is over three metres high, and the lyrical delicacy of some of his recent series of smaller works in oil on aluminum, such as P4.05. Yet the compositional structure and mode of facture is the same in all cases, a bipartite division of the picture into square fields of more or less equal size, one above the other, and a method of painting that eschews the brushstroke in favour of a vigorous scraping on and off of paint with a metal spatula. The notion of borders has a long been important in Tyrrell's art, a fact explicitly registered in the 'Borderland' series of the early 1990s. These latest works also emphasis the narrow bands that both contain larger fields of colour and provide some form of mediation between them. The pared-down, scraped-back surfaces of all of Tyrrell's paintings bear the memory of their making, the sedimented history of each work's individual facture. There are certain similarities between the palimpsest-like, build-up of gradually obscured marking on these busy surfaces and the scratched and scored shells of some of Gibbons' smaller sculptures, which sometimes resemble some sort of out-sized, enclosed kernel or nut. The gestures at the heart of Charles Tyrrell's paintings are gestures of erasure or removal as much as of incremental expression. These are beautifully reticent, through never ungenerous paintings, that somehow appear to be more communicative than might ordinarily be the case, here in the convivial company of this well-chosen and carefully installed selection of the sculptures by John Gibbons.

'Sculpture in the Close 2005'

Jesus College, Cambridge

ISBN 0 9529665 2 2

John Gibbons

Rod Mengham

Since the early 1980s, a very large proportion of John Gibbons’s sculpture has connoted architectural structures, albeit of an extremely unfamiliar shape and dimensions.  An extraordinary level of energy was sustained in the invention of new forms that seemed designed exclusively for symbolic purposes rather than practical ones.  They did not offer to house or give passage to the human figure.  But with the new millenium, Gibbons’s work has taken him gradually but inexorably in a very different direction, so much so that the characteristic Gibbons sculpture of recent years carries irresistible associations of the human form, and more often than not of the human head.  He has also explored the related but different scope offered by the imagining of mythical beings, such as angels, conventionally represented in ways that only make sense with reference to aspects of the human form.

Gibbons avoids portraiture, is not interested in the individuating details of surface features; he concentrates on the underlying structure, which often takes shape in a simulation of musculature under torsion, while at other times it is reminiscent of Renaissance models of the arterial system, created by pouring molten metal into the vessels of cadavers.  The main difference is that Gibbons’s networks of lineation seem capable of mobility and exertion; they are not distributive systems, multiple versions of a genetic template, but individually specific, unrepeatable.  In this respect they also call to mind the hectic rigmaroles of Jackson Pollock, a painter whose work Gibbons values very highly.  But these are not three-dimensional drip-paintings, because they do not reflect Pollock’s commitment to spontaneity and impulsiveness; on the contrary, they are wrestled slowly into being, in a sustained and deliberated process of elaboration.  This is one measure of the extent to which they do not express the personality of the artist, but rather point away from the artist in the direction of the viewer.  Imbued with a sense of power held in reserve, of meaningful reticence rather than expressiveness, Gibbons’s allusions to the human form hesitate between the figurative and the abstract, enhancing the tension that defines the viewer’s encounter with archaic kouroi, and even with Egyptian statuary.  But whereas the restraint of these ancient traditions of sculpture is coincident with an emphasis on mass and volume, Gibbons transfers the emphasis to interiority, provokes an awareness of the work as receptacle, as the container of a latent meaning.

This latency, together with the tension of an intermediary state, is what defines the angelic being.  Reinvented for post-modernity by Wim Wenders’s film Wings of Desire, the angel is an ideal creature that nonetheless moves through history.  Gibbons’s angels in the Hall of Jesus College are airborne but also captives of their material condition: lumpy and experimental, they seem like the off-cuts of evolution, except that they also preserve a tincture of the spirit that allows them to defy gravity and transfigure the mundane.  Their achievement lies in the maker’s art of improvisation, in welding together fragments of heavy armour precisely in order to enclose an essential delicacy of being.

'North, South, East and West, John Gibbons: New Work'

Sculpture in the Workplace, Canary Whart, London

Ann Elliott, text

John Gibbons’ recent sculptures mark a considerable development in his intellectual focus and in the formal qualities of his work. To discover more about the things that he finds endlessly enthralling, we talked in his Dickensian railway arch studio in south London, sitting for warmth in a cobweb-festooned cubby hole in front of a pin-board of postcards and clippings that gathered dust, while Eurostar trains thundered above. Our discussion revealed much about the forms and shifts of emphasis in this selection of work, taken from the stacks of sculptures squirreled away in the depths of the railway arch.
Roving around in conversation with Gibbons about interests and passions that enliven the mind, as well as the everyday stuff of being an artist, references in his art were revealed to be rich in diversity: the Gateshead Millennium Bridge,1; ethnic fabrics and weaving techniques; African tribal masks; Michelangelo’s sculpture; Indian sculpture; Egyptian architecture and sculpture; Chinese Buddhist sculpture; and the painting of the American Abstract Expressionist artist, Jackson Pollock (1912–56), to which he referred time and again. The range of matter over which artists travel in their thinking, and the way they look at the world, is endlessly enthralling, and while some of what they create reveals these things, others remain subliminal. Furthermore, a sense of humanity in a work of art comes not only from the subject, but also from the feeling one has for the artist’s concepts and often, but not always, of the artist’s hand.
This selection of John Gibbons’ sculptures comprises large three-dimensional drawings, fashioned from stainless steel – architectural shapes, and allusions to masks or human heads that have evolved, by degree, to become more organic. All engage line – straight, formal and geometric, or curving, seemingly random, exploratory – the difference in definition marks moments of deliberate change. In works that are explorations of space and containment, Gibbons uses our engagement with the sculptures to bring alive the human content.
So what are the interests of this artist that, when made known to his audience, the difference to our understanding is exponential? The first revelation about the architectural sculptures such as Transition (Monk’s Song), 2000, is the fact of their upward energy, the feeling gained, perhaps, from being in a Gothic cathedral. The smaller, mask-like sculptures, of which Within, 2001– 02, is a prime example, linger between the larger works and the more overt heads, and suggest human presence, although they are empty, like the African Masks that Gibbons collects and hangs on his walls. For the heads – Smile, Song of the Soul and Who, all 2004 – he drew a parallel with his passion for the late paintings of Jackson Pollock.
When moving from the formality of vertical and horizontal structures, circular motifs, and a sense of either open or contained space, Gibbons travelled forward with abandon, but taking with him certain elements that he knew would not hold him back. The pivotal piece in this change is Song (of the Angels), 2003, (pet name: ‘Spanish Lady’) in which circular forms interconnect to disturb the space within the overall circular motif, aided by looking at the architecture of Santiago Calatrava and studying the animation of spiders. This is a truly female formation, turning and rolling. He then disrupted the formality of his sculptures. Using tangled lines with few straight interlocutors, in the next works Gibbons could deal with the invasion of space more thoroughly and expressively: a journey from point and counterpoint to a crescendo of complex and free movement. His trail is also one from order to chaos, not an easy route to take. However, the way that the sculptures are woven, which may at a glance seem confused, has logic. He has in effect turned his sculptural methodology around. The architectural pieces, seeming to be logical, vertical, horizontal, trick the eye into believing this to be so, but in effect they elude absolute geometry, whereas the recent pieces that appear randomly chaotic hide their own logic. Gibbons says about these developments: ‘The apparent confusion in
the work has its own order in the end, even if that order remains implicit.’ The works also have a strong sense of humanity, which Gibbons considers is essential to his personal aesthetic of whether or not things work, or are in harmony. He finds this to be true in both the works of art and the artefacts that inform his art. The divine may be suggested through the human form, which speaks for itself, but may equally be expressed non- figuratively. Such concerns sing through these new sculptures.

1, Designed by Wilkinson Eyre Architects


The Post Industrial Landscape

The Czech Museum of Fine Arts, Prague, Czech Republic

ISBN: 80 -7056-116-5

John Gibbons

Matthew Cheeseman

The sculptures arrive in steel and copper, processed rods bent around each other in lattice-like structures. Some are complex, some are simple. They do not announce themselves, they simply are. We recognise the city in these first few seconds. here are modern works before us, urban in their flavour and innovative in their construction, standing with the assurance of the skyscraper, holding the connections of the centre and the grid of the town within.
Step closer and examine the joins and wrappings, the sprays of once molten metal connecting one bar to another and exploding on the surface of the hanging, motherlike stones. Register the industrial but resist visualising the forge in the artist’ studio. We tend to relax when we see the production process in front of us. Imagine in place the basic drama of the material reacting with itself, the latent energy of the final product. beyond the metal there is architecture. The lattice work of the polished frames order the space both inside and out, giving most of the pieces an interior and exterior. You will find many of them have an entrance and visual passageways for your mind and eye. Architectural motifs and parts of the body are subtly evoked, often at the same time. ‘Light‘ is a chimney, totem pole and sentinel. Watch children around it, they tend to crane their necks for different viewpoints, discovering new shapes and patterns as they look.
There is an element of uncertainty in the transparency of the bars and the false perspectives. Sometimes it is hard to work out what is in and what is out. The critic Karen Wilkin has used the term ‘fictive solids‘ to describe this aspect of his work. It can lead to disturbing effects, especially evident in the head-like pieces, which are charged with the intensity of life so evident in the modern city. This is as close as the work comes to dislocation. Nothing is amplified. There is always a necessity in what John Gibbons does.
Although initial impressions orientates the mind towards a post-industrial context, it is the pre-industrial that the work truly evolved. To further appreciate the sculpture of John Gibbons one must embark on a journey out of the industrial. In recent years the artist has done this himself. The mesh and grit of his previous work has become more accepting  of an earlier light.
I know the man. He engages in a constant dialogue with art history. Asian art, especially Indian sculpture, has had a profound influence on his work. There is also personal mythology here, as there  should be for any artist. But what truly unites the eye and excites his hand is an essential appreciation of the ‘lifeforce’, and I do not mean the concept, but the thing itself. It is present in all the sculptures, both as an underlying generative force and manifest in an ordered and mathematical fashion. The lifeforce inundates the work, and is the strength behind their beauty.
Yet there is no noise and flash to his pieces: the observer is always in the presence of monoliths. Each and every sculpture has an internal gravity, one that establishes itself as the one true centre. In a way this is connected to an ancient conception of the city. From Rome to Beijing, cities have been  as the centre of the world, at a convergence of the wind and water, light and dark. Ching is Chinese for both capital city and pivot. No shadow was cast by the emperor at mid-summer. No shadow is cast by these monoliths. Look.
It relates to the city as an axis between the worlds. A medieval parable saw life as a pilgrimage between two cities: from an earthly base to the heavenly Jerusalem. From the physical to the spiritual. A sculpture such as ‘Light‘ exemplifies this, it too is an axis, and feels like a conduit between the worlds. The theme is relevant to the piece ‘In a Dream‘ and ‘The Messenger’, both are suspended in air, yet both are primordial in their texture and appearance. They are Satellites of the Deep, a unification of the heavens and the underworld, both solar and chthonian at the same time.
This is an expression of duality, the state of being two things while being one. The concept is integral to Gibbons’ work. ‘Here and Now’ and ‘Om’ are more literal examples, where the use of copper and steel emphasise two halves that are unified through their complementary structure. There is a flow between each part that expresses the sculpture as a whole, directing both the eye and body with it. The title ’Om’ refers to the primeval sound, the roar of energy from which all manifestation evolved. The void is expresses in these binary containers, and the potential of creation too. The body is here, the lungs and the rush of breath, the sheer potential of the human body unfolding in the universe. Duality is at the heart of ‘Dawn’, with its complex feminine centre surrounded by an ordered grid. There is division, but only within the law of the whole, the elements breathe together and remain as one. This quality is symptomatic of all the sculptures. The head piece ‘Call’ and ‘Within’ convey both the necessity and the mindlessness of knowledge and concentration. There are never polarities in his work, always dualities, double positives.
We have come full circle. Each sculpture possesses the unity of the monolith while encompassing tremendous diversity within their own borders. This returns the work to a post-industrial setting. Once again they stand before us like the skyscrapers of our initial impressions, each holding the connections of the centre within.