John Gibbons

Catalogue Text, 1998-1999



'Body & Soul'

Flowers East, London


Nograd History Museum, Salgotarjan, Hungery

Endre Horvath Gallery, Balassagyarmat, Hungery

  'From the Hand'

 Taylor Galleries, Dublin, Ireland

 Published by Flowers East

 ISBN 1 873362 99 4

Karen Wilkin, 'The Sculpture of John Gibbons'

I first became aware of the work of the London-based, Irish-born sculptor John Gibbons during the summer of 1982, when he was a participant and I was a visiting critic at an international artists' workshop in upstate New York. He was one of a circle of ambitious young sculptors loosely united by their fervent belief in the expressive potential of abstract construction in steel and their still more fervent desire to translate the language of abstract construction in steel into something entirely personal and unexpected. Even in this competitive - and often combative - company, Gibbons' intensity was striking. His determination to wrestle each of his sculptures into submission was remarkable, proof of a stubborn single-mindedness that was tempered only by an openness to suggestions that arose in the course of working and a refusal to fall back on any of the useful cliches of welded construction in making his work. That these characteristics were integral to Gibbons' approach, I gradually discovered, since after that first encounter, I - like many of my colleagues who care passionately about sculpture - made a point of following Gibbons' evolution, seeing his exhibitions whenever possible and making regular visits to his studio. The intensity has not diminished; neither has the combination of alertness to process and willful insistence on fighting a conception through to the end - which may take several years. But while Gibbons' stubbornness has not lessened during the past decade and a half, the potency and focus of his sculpture have steadily increased. He has produced a body of inventive, idiosyncratic work that led Michael Harrison, the director of the University of Cambridge's Kettle's Yard, to describe him not long ago as "one of the most distinct and distinguished sculptural voices of the late twentieth century."

Gibbons hit his stride soon after that summer of 1982, with a series of elegantly constructed, confrontational steel pieces (no.2,3,4), meditations on our physical and mental experience of architecture. (The first was begun earlier, but evolved with the rest of the group.) These poetic sculptures were like solemn facades, complete with roofs, porches, and niches, but unenterable and slightly smaller than their explicit references led us to expect. The series announced Gibbons' future preoccupations in their conflation of the vernacular and the sacred, the industrial and the sensuous, and in their exploration of the associative powers of volume. Since then, he has continued to make highly charged structures, often as much like places as things, that simultaneously evoke kiosks and confessionals, engines and altars, buildings and bodies; smaller pieces are like reliquaries or shrines that, at the same time, are as voluptuous as anything on an Indian temple.

By the end of the 1980s, Gibbons' massive, quasi-architectural constructions had given way to lean, tower-like structures that evoked, rather than the sacred precinct, the engine room and the industrial landscape (no.6,7,8). As these works developed, it seemed as if Gibbons was determined not only to pare the dense forms of his earlier works to schematic scaffolding, but to change the way we perceived his sculptures; he demanded not simply that we look attentively, but that we participate actively. By the early 1990s, he was testing the limits of economy and extension in a group of drastically simplified, dramatically extended works that unfolded like sentences by Henry James. Gibbons' towers and his earlier "facade" sculptures loomed up before us, keeping us at bay. Niches often had barriers that prevented even the possibility of entry; stair-like structures were either inaccessible or defied our assumptions about their proportions; sight was our only means of access. But while Gibbons' long, slender constructions hugged the ground and stretched away from us (no.8,36), they insisted that we move along their length and measure them against our own stride if we were to understand their implications. (Any sculpture heightens our awareness of our corporeality to some degree, but Gibbons' works of this kind made the experience explicit, rather than implicit.)

The sculptor has since destroyed or modified most of these pieces, yet they remain important, since their open, attenuated forms led to a pivotal work, Beginning, 1995 (no.10), which translated the frontality and the architectural associations of Gibbons' sculptures of the 1980s into a syntax of steel bars. The pregnant space of Beginning, like a stage awaiting a performance, is defined largely by shifts in the interval and direction of these bars. It's as if Gibbons had turned his closed "facade" sculptures, with their hints of obscure interiors, inside out in order to reveal their secret spaces. Beginning and its fellows, in turn, led to the obsessively "drawn", dense linear works (no.11,12,13) that have engaged Gibbons since about 1995: robust, open volumes described by meticulously joined and twined steel bars like cat's cradles made by an obsessed giant.

Gibbons' earliest works made us re-examine our sense of  place by being both inviting and impenetrable; his experiments with linear, low-lying works intensified our sense of our own bodies by asking us to move beside them. His recent sculptures pose compelling questions about how we perceive volume and mass by being at once bulky, unignorable, and transparent. Like Gibbons' sculptures of the 1980s, his recent "caged" pieces can be described as confrontational, implacable, and informed by architectural references; like them (like all of his work) his recent sculptures clearly belong to the modernist tradition of open, additive construction in metal. Yet paradoxically, they fuse these attributes with a conception of sculpture as monolith - that is, as a single, unignorable object that may resemble something already existing, but declares its otherness by displacing space; this is in marked opposition to modernist constructed sculpture, which embraces space and declares its otherness by looking like nothing but itself. Gibbons' recent works offer the provocative possibility of successfully combining these seemingly mutually exclusive notions. Clearly made by assembling discreet elements, rather than by modelling or cutting away, his "caged" sculptures are nonetheless as self contained, and object-like as any statue. Abstract and never literal, they seem informed at the same time by unignorable allusions. Most mysterious, they refuse to declare unequivocally whether they displace or surround space, so that the difference between inside and outside becomes difficult to define. They are uncannily there and not there.

To judge by the works Gibbons has made since the mid-1990s, the contradictory concerns of his "caged" sculptures have proved fertile territory for him. But he has never settled for a single way of thinking about sculptural possibilities. "I don't want to stay on the periphery," he says, cryptically. "I want to get drowned in something and then swim out." He is still deeply interested by the mysteries of large scale masses that can be seen through - and thanks to a series of commissions (no.15), he has been able to explore them at monumental scale, which changes their properties considerably. But he has recently produced an arresting group of bronzes (no.16-31) that, while perfectly self-sufficient, also seem motivated by the desire to see what happens if the defining qualities of the large "caged" sculptures are consciously reversed. Instead of being ample and open, like drawings made with crisp, bold strokes, as the "caged" pieces are, Gibbons' intimate bronzes are small, opaque, and intricate, with soft edges, like paintings made with pools of wash. Some suggest sea creatures or plant forms, while others are assertively - even disquietingly - anatomical. The bronzes are plainly about touch, about the difference between the direct, tactile experience of modelling soft, responsive wax and the more distant factory-like processes of manipulating and welding steel. "I got interested in the way kids understand visual language through their hands," Gibbons explains. "Your hands give substance and reality to other kinds of information. But the hand-size sculptures are just as hard to make as the big ones. The difference is that you make more of them and they're easier to move around." The often elaborately worked bronzes bear witness to Gibbons' pleasure in a material and a scale that permits - even requires - a greater degree of detail than large steel constructions. "I found that you focus on the bronzes differently," Gibbons says. "You get right into them, so you need more to look at. The kind of demands they make for detail is unbelievable."

Yet despite their unlikeness to Gibbons' steel sculptures, his bronzes clearly belong to the same family. They probe similar notions of the relationship between the organic and the man-made. Many of them are flagrantly erotic, yet their overt sensuality seems (perhaps perversely) to depend not only on potent "soft" references to anatomy and to such prototypes as the swelling forms of Indian sculpture, but to invoke as well "hard" associations with the stupas and lingams of Indian temples. The inflected surfaces and, on occasion, deep openings of the bronzes return us once again to considerations of inside and outside. And at the same time that they recall organs and natural forms, they remind us of the inherent artifice and made-ness of these appealing, hand-sized objects, bearing witness to Gibbons' expenditure of will and effort in forming them.

Throughout his evolution, what has consistently distinguished - and linked - all of Gibbons' disparate improvisations on industry, architecture, and the body, whether constructed in steel or modelled in wax and cast in bronze, has been their fusion of unignorable literal presence and potent metaphor; expressive purely in terms of articulation, mass, and the joining of parts - or in the bronzes, in terms of the memory of the hand - these eloquent structures are also powerful equivalents for other experience. Gibbons' large "facade" sculptures of the 1980s were about entering, shelter, and enclosure, without reproducing the proportions of functional doorways, porches, or rooms and without permitting entry, but along with these architectural allusions, the sculptures' mysterious niches and shadowy hollows also strongly suggested private zones of the body. In Ascension 1994-5 (no.34), a catwalk, seemingly functional despite its curious proportions and warped symmetry, gradually reveals that its suspended treads are too frail and too widely spaced to walk upon. Gibbons' delicate touch further subverts the sculpture's industrial, off-the-rack character, so that the seemingly utilitarian platform turns into an abstraction of passage; extended cross-braces diagram lifting and soaring so that the initially straightforward sculpture seems about to take wing.

Gibbons courts this kind of ambiguity. "There was a point when my work started to trigger all kinds of references, both personal and other kinds," he says. "I tried to keep them out, thinking they were inappropriate. But the more I worked, the more they kept knocking on the door and finally I thought 'Let's let them in and see what happens'. Once I did, it helped me to figure out how to resolve what I was doing."

These references are essentially private, but certain associations are dictated by the sculptures' scale and orientation, without, however, diminishing the multivalent quality of the image. The proportions and upright, confrontational stance of recent works such as Body and Soul and Life (both 1996-1999) (no.1, 32) make it impossible not to read them in terms of the figure - or more accurately, in terms of the possibilitv of the figure's presence - while the size, the horizontal presentation, and the elevation of the central, involuted volume of To Be (1996-7) (no.33) make it tempting to read into it allusions to, among other things, sleep, death, and funerary rites.

"The forms are filtered through all kinds of reflections - memories, associations," Gibbons explains. Some have to do with his childhood in Ireland. Even the repetitive caging in his recent works has roots in early impressions. "I hadn't made the connection consciously, but my mother and aunt were great knitters," he recalls. "It was magic, seeing a ball of wool turn into a sweater."

Gibbons' way of using such sources is neither anecdotal nor literal. "My mother had an old treadle sewing machine," he says. "Using it demanded a particular kind of concentration from her and from me. You had to be quiet when your mother was working. You couldn't distract her." Yet it is not the image of a woman at a specific task that informs Gibbons' sculptures, but the memory of enforced quietness. A piece that he entitled Silence, 1992-93, is a wholly abstract, machine-like, inwardly focused construction about distance and separation. Only rarely will he force an association into the foreground, as in a powerful, but rather atypical work, The Crib, 1995-96 (no.37), in which we read a strange, horizontal thicket of bars with a sheltering hood as an over-sized cradle because of the presence of a battered wooden stool.

More typical and more oblique are a group of table-like pieces made in the early 1990s (no.5,6,38), after Gibbons was artist in residence, with the painter Kenneth Noland, at a workshop in northern Canada. At first acquaintance these marriages of workshop table, altar, and Cubist gueridon seem to have nothing to do with landscape. But they were, Gibbons says, "influenced by talking with Ken. He has a well, innocent is the word - way of looking at phenomena, so fresh and open. He spent a lot of time looking at reflections in the water and taking photographs of them. His attention was drawn to nature and how it ordered itself. It could have been seen as pedestrian but Ken was able to see the magic in it. I recognized that in the sculptures I made afterwards. They have layers, like the lake, the sky, and the lake bottom. It came from messing around in boats, but they were also about someone's being amazed by the phenomenon of light reflected off water. If you pay attention to ordinary things, you are rewarded for it."

Gibbons' paying attention to ordinary things always results in unequivocally abstract' objects, but despite their abstractness his sculptures always imply a human presence. Their doorway-like openings, table-height horizontals, and body-like proportions all suggest an awareness of human requirements the way furniture does, without depicting the body. "I think about Jackson Pollock alot," Gibbons says. "I always make a point when I am in New York to see his Autumn Rhvthm at the Metropolitan and One, Number 30, 1950 at the Modern. I've been looking at them for years, absorbing them, trying to make sense of them - especially Number 30. 1950. It lights up the map of the human psyche, not unlike a brain scan. It's primordial. Pollock and David Smith both tapped into that primordial vein. Pollock didn't have to paint the body for his work to be about the body. It's implicit. The viewer is the body. When that's understood, it opens up a whole new potential."

Gibbons speaks of his desire to create "psychological space" with his works as opposed to "surrogate figures," but ultimately, of course, what makes his sculptures rewarding over a long period is not  their allusiveness, but their formal complexity and unexpectedness. Part of the enigma of works like Body and Soul, Life, and To Be resides in the way they refute their own transparency, implying density and asserting the difference between interior and exterior, even though they are constructed without any solid planes. Gibbons' layering of bars creates the illusion of contained volume without containment; variations in the thickness of the bars create false perspectives, intensifying our awareness of the boundaries of fictive solids, while clearly defined "openings" in the wall of bars allow passage in, strengthening our sense of the integrity of surrounding planes that do not exist. Along the way, we are constantly stopped by details of construction - joins and wrappings, placements and displacements reinforcing the fiction of mass and continuity.

Gibbons himself is fascinated by the way these sculptures work. "Just because I had made an outside and you could see through it didn't mean that the piece had an inside. I had to make an inside. And I had to make an entrance. It seemed nuts," he says, "but it was the entrance that made the outside solid."

Part of what makes Gibbons' sculpture rewarding, too, is its dialogue with art history. The reproductions pinned to the wall of an enclosed part of his London studio - a tall, vaulted railway arch in South Bermondsey - reveal many of his private touchstones. Piero della Francesca's massive Madonna del Parto currently occupies a prominent place. "I kept coming back in here without knowing why, while I was struggling to finish a piece," Gibbons says, "and then I realized 'Of course! It's the hands of the angels - the way they cross and touch the curtains'. That told me what I needed to do. It's such an amazing image, with that gesture of hers, touching herself. "

If it seems overly obvious to read the overlapping diagonal bars of Life as a response to the radiating arms of Piero's angels, a more subtle connection can probably be found between the sculpture's swelling, swirling roundness, with its suggestively placed "navel," and Piero's pregnant Madonna of childbirth, with her hand slipped provocatively into her dress. Oddly, however, despite its aggressive bulk, the sculpture seems more “enclosure" than "figure". There's a sense that there is an interior, but that it is a void. (Body and Soul, by contrast, seems as solid, despite its literal transparency, as a stone monument, while the caged element of To Be persists in being both container and contained, no doubt because of the shifting sizes of both sculptures' component bars, which reinforce the illusive continuity of their continuous, open planes.)

Other photographs on Gibbons' wall, at present, include Indian temple sculptures and stupas, the many-breasted Artemis of Ephesus, and a Greek maIe head with schematic, tightly carved curls. What is conspicuously absent in the studio wall are images of abstract sculpture, in spite of the fact that Gibbons himself thinks of himself as an abstract artist, and as part of a long linage of other abstract artists. His formative training was at London's St. Martin's  School of Art during the early 1970s, when students hotly debating what was "proper to sculpture" concluded that only abstraction offered fertile ground. The level of argument was extraordinary," Gibbons reminisces. He found his way to the school after seeing the now legendary McAlpine Bequest show at the Tate Gallery of daring abstract sculptures by young British artists, including David Annesley, William Tucker, Tim Scott, Philip King, and Isaac Witkin. Gibbons had recently completed two "frustrating, unhelpful" years of art school in Ireland and had bluffed his way into a job with a portrait sculptor. "The show was an enormous relief," he says. "It showed me a way to go. It was the first sculpture I'd seen that gave me an opening. I read the catalogue to see where the people in the show had been to school and all but one had been to St. Martin's."

Gibbons' time at the school was invaluable. "St. Martin's gave me a language in which to express myself, a coherence," he says. "I knew there was more to it than I had actually experienced. It was like being lost and not knowing where to make the turning or how to read the signs. Or like being an untrained hound who has a good nose but runs wild. St. Martin's gave me the training!"

Yet even in the school's pressure-cooker atmosphere of the period, Gibbons preserved his independence. "The school was anarchistic, forcing one to think things through. I later thought, why not just trust your instincts? When I left St. Martin's I made a point of having a studio away from people I'd been at school with, so I had to sort it out for myself."

That kind of individuality is evident when Gibbons speaks of the artists who have meant most to him, from the years of "sorting out" to the present. That Asian art, especially Indian sculpture, has fascinated him for years is visible in his sculptures' burgeoning, erotic forms, but surprisingly, he also credits Asian precedents for their reticence and near-geometry. "The first time I realized that a sculpture could call attention to itself without shouting," Gibbons says, "I was at the Metropolitan, in the Asian galleries. I looked at a sculpture and thought 'it's a Buddha' and moved on. But it called me back. I discovered that I wanted that in my work, that quietness."

David Smith and Rodin rank high in Gibbons' eclectic pantheon. "Rodin is one of the masters I pay attention to," Gibbons says. "I always have. I'm more and more amazed by him. It has to do with his range, with how he used the figure - as a vehicle, not as an end in itself. He never settled. He used his own life as a vantage point, a point of reflection, like he used earlier art. You're always aware of change in Rodin, unlike in Maillol. Maillol has a particular aesthetic that he holds on to and reaffirms."

Gibbons speaks passionately of Rodin:  "You have to  pay attention. To behave any other way  would be disrespectful. Instinctively you know you're in the presence of some kind of power. You have to listen to it. It’s the same thing with Smith. Other artists make noise and try to attract your attention."

Gibbons' recent works synthesize his diverse enthusiasms. The assertive presence of the hand in his small bronzes, like their mass and their very material, could be read as an overt homage to Rodin, as can the declarative singleness of his "caged" sculptures. Yet the illusory bulk of the "caged" sculptures is achieved not by modeling, but by enclosing a chunk of space by welding together discrete elements, a way of constructing (and conceiving) a sculpture deeply indebted not to Rodin and the tradition of the statue, but to Smith and the tradition of modernist construction.

Gibbons' recent work bears witness, too, to his engagement with aspects of Brancusi's sculpture. "I always wanted to see the pieces at Tirgu Jiu," Gibbons says. He went to Romania in 1995. "Of all of Brancusi's works, they seemed so un-sculptural in their precedents and yet they're so sculptural. The table isn't just a table - it's a millstone, a connection to the earth. The column is so delicate and yet so physical. I saw the column for the first time at night and it seemed to be holding up the sky, like an umbrella stem. And when I saw it in the daytime, it was just as magical."

The phrase "delicate and yet so physical" can describe Gibbons' own sculptures. Introspective and finely drawn, they are insistently about their materials and the history of their making. The solemn recent works, their volumes described and contained by the reiterated "drawing" with steel bars, have the uncanny presence and visual weight of sarcophagi. While they can be penetrated from all directions, they seem as heavy as granite. Even in Gibbons' railway arch studio, where trains rumble overhead, they pull us into their aura of stillness. And the tiny bronzes with their insistent sexual charge, far from seeming playful, appear to be relics of some potentially dangerous ritual.

I'm not sure of the context - perhaps something to do with artists who worked provocatively in bronze - but on a recent visit to Gibbons' studio, we began to talk about Matisse. "Matisse is intellectual," Gibbons said, "but his work is still about instinct and emotion. He applied extraordinary intelligence and focussed emotion in a very intense way. He didn't get distracted." Gibbons could have been speaking of his own intentions.


'John Gibbons, Signs of Passage'

Temple Bar Gallery, Dublin

Crawford Municipal Art Gallery, Cork, Ireland

Published by Temple Bar Gallery

ISBN 0 9519146 42

Vera Ryan, 'Signs of Passage'

Nearly twenty years ago John Gibbons had his first Irish one man show in the Project Arts Centre, marking his award of the Macaulay Felllowship in Sculpture a few years earlier. Since then although exhibiting internationally he has had only one other Irish one – man show. This was in the Butler Gallery two years ago. So sign of passage is a significant exhibition.

His artistic life since the early seventies has revolved around London. In Ireland he attended the Limerick and Crawford Schools of Art respectively, responding in particular to John Burke’s tuition. Ellis O’Connell and Vivienne Roche were in the Crawford around that time too. He left Ireland, though, and put himself through St. Martin’s School of Art in London, benefitting on the one hand from Caro’s presence there and on the other from his experience as assistant to the establishment portrait sculptor Oskar Nemon. “ St. Martin gave me a language to express myself which was non – figurative. The figurative language in sculpture was worn out then. The language I learnt in St. Martin’s facilitated another take on life. London is the centre of the sculpture world. Moore showed what could be done. The art school system in the UK allowed artists to live outside the commercial system. In America the dealers are it."1 John is Professor of Sculpture at Winchester School of Art but lives and has his studio in London.

Since that first one – man show where lead was one of his materials there has been a constancy in his almost exclusive use of raw steel as a sculptural material. But over the last few years there has been a move from an exploration of mass and weight to the emphasis on linearity and open forms visible in the present exhibition. He has used stainless steel, in the only public sculpture he has made. This is at the Headquarters of the Environmental Protection Agency in Wexford.

The Linearity of the current sculpture bespeaks his links with the work of Gonzalez and David Smith. Referring to Gonzalez’ use of industrial welding techniques for art making : “ Gonzalez opened the mine shaft which Picasso recognised and he and others exploited. Greenberg pointed Caro to Smith. Gonzalez, Smith, Caro cleaned up linear sculpture. I used architecture to get around this, as another way of opening up a space for myself. I made room for myself, stopped bumping into ghosts. Recently I’ve seen a way I can use my life more. I admire the way Rodin used the vantage point of life.

The youthful artist is beautifully expressed in The Age of Bronze, the middle aged man’s expression of power and fear for his virility in the Balzac, the old man’s ponderings in The Thinker.”

The words artists use give great insight into their creative imagination. Gibbons frequently uses the word resonate : “ It’s a level of resonance I’m after.” Shapes resonate with experience. Shapes trigger off memory and association. We live our indoor lives among the shapes of furniture. In cities we move among engineering and architectural shapes. London during the buildings boom in the eighties looked to Gibbons like a huge heronry with all the cranes on the skyline. The metal reinforcing bars in the foundations of buildings before the concrete is poured creates lattice effects which, though less robust looking, echo human scale and create a resonance with abstract forces. These vistas fascinated and continue to fascinate Gibbons.

The motifs come from personal and collective experience. It is however very important to Gibbons that the motivation to make particular forms is unconscious, and at their best the sculptures speak to the unconscious and intuitive in the spectator, as well as to the referential. He starts the work with the materials, which before and into the nineties were often found objects, which he welded into the form which most strongly suggested itself to him. He does not start with drawings or specific ideas. Now he buys the metal rods, and welds and weaves them into sculptures, almost like three dimensional drawings. At a time when so many sculptors use assistants or fabricators, Gibbons is quite unusual in his commitment to doing all the making himself.

The sculptures encourage an intimate relationship with the viewer perhaps because of the articulate detail; the detail fine tunes the focus. They are however austere. The sculptures defy any expectation of an essential relationship between art and sensuousness. Their appeal is to the mind, to the imagination and often to the erotic aspect of the imagination.

1. All questions are from conversations with the artist – 6th, 7th and 8th February 1998

The shape of Birth of Venus clearly alludes to the phallus. With its bulging ends it rocks back and forth on the floor and is quite raunchy. The steel bars seem stretched so tautly that they could snap, like elastic. As we look through the rectangular aperture on top we see a boat shape delicately woven within, alluding to the female vulva. His fusion here of shapes associated with both the male and female is not untypical of Gibbons' work. Venus, currently on exhibition at the Lothbury Gallery in London, is a partly coloured voluptuous sculpture showing his absorption of Hindu art in the closed swollen forms, and it also has both male and female genital references: “ One chromosome is not a great deal of difference but it’s a nice one.“ In the phallic shape of Birth of Venus there is a wealth of reference to the mythology of the Birth of Venus, who was born after her father’s testicles were cut off and tossed into the sea, which they (as foam) fertilised. The austerity is subverted by humour and energy.

Testament relates formally to a number of other works – Daughter, The Book , Kiss of the Butterfly – all of which are explorations of the large open book shape. Gibbons is the great master of the horizontal line and this open book shape was an opportunity to explore it. Testament although solemn, facilitates a congenial relationship with the viewer, whose body and hands are likely to touch the sculpture as they see it. Textless, it acknowledges that the viewer may bring their own story. The openness of the title, reflecting the openness and transparency of the form, might suggest ruminations on the Old Testament, or testament as in last will and testament, or the general concept of testament as witness. Potential references to aspects of religious practise link this piece with the body of work Ascension, Visitation, The Communion – he exhibited in Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge in 1997. Secular and sacred thoughts blend and lead towards the contemplative.

There is a frequent symbiosis between title and sculpture in Gibbons’ work, with titles often operating “ like a pin number to the subconscious”, opening up a way into the sculpture for the viewer. But in The kiss the artists is challenging two of the Western world’s most famous sculptural kisses, Rodin’s  and Brancusi’s. Gibbons’ Kiss is less rapturous. Seen from the front, there is a uniformly angled sheer upper section and a more complicated and dense lower section, a format typical of Gibbons' newer sculptures. This front is resistant to the spectator who can only look through the bars. Moving sideways, there is a tangible interior space in the upper section of this sculpture, as there is in so many of Gibbons’ works. The perhaps perplexed spectator almost inevitably holds the outsides bars and sticks their head and shoulders into the interior, as if in a cattle, crush. Given their austerity the frequency with which a spectator might touch or hold or in other cases walk through Gibbons’ sculpture is surprising ; there are very few gallery exhibits that allow quite this kind of tentative tactile exploration. Perhaps with its daunting frontality and unexpected side entry The Kiss is a paradigm for youthful, nervous or unexpected kisses. The spectator has to partly physically experience the sculpture, and partly tap into their own subconscious to grasp Gibbons non-descriptive sculptural language.

Consort represents quite another experience. As with Birth of Venus male and female shapes co-exist in the one piece. But Consort is formal, even ritualistic, tense and proud rather than animated and raunchy. The Sile na Gig aperture is presented with steel bars tenaciously pressing into it like tendrils or fingers. A sense of steel as an immediate material is communicated. He uses it as a good knitter uses wool, if more tautly. The intricate woven quality to the female section echoes the dense lower section of The Kiss.

By creating works whose skeletal and monochrome appearance have an almost Jansenist severity, Gibbons can explore memories and ideas which if more sensously presented through colour, texture etc. might not be considered within the bounds of propriety. Much can resonate.

Chance as well as the unconscious plays an important part in his creative belief. The very structured working conditions he has created for himself leave room to improvise, to listen to the whispers of chance and the unconscious. In the process of making To Be, he was due to lift the main shape from the floor onto a trolley on which he normally finishes the sculptures. Despite having moved away from found objects in recent years, some old galvanised scaffolding he had stored away suggested itself to him, as the way to complete the composition. The scaffolding became a bed, the coffin or body like shape was placed on the planks which came with came with the scaffolding. To Be is virtually an installation, a chilling contemplation on the relation of body to spirit. He sees Catholicism as having given very specific guidelines to the imagination, stimulating and directing it. “It’s given me a felt vantage point, and a range of imagery, as well as directing the imagination.” The X at one end of the container like shape and the + at the other associate the coffin shape specifically with Christian ideology. The circular shape that was a vulva in Consort and the rectangular shape that was also a vulva in Birth of Venus are used in To Be to very different effect. Tendrils also cling on to the circular shape here. Is it head or is it an exit point for the spirit to leave the body? The interior of the sculpture like in the Birth of Venus is very delicate, very vulnerable. One might be looking at an x-ray . The linear and transparent structures of the sculpture and the cold grey colours of the raw and galvanised steel are obvious equivalents to the skeletal and the spectral. The emphatic horizontal lines, as in Ascentsion, suggest a non-ascendant experience. In both sculptures the diagonals signify a lifting of the spirit. To Be is a sculptural memento mori presenting that most common of scenes, a laid out body or coffin on a bed. Memories of childhood visits to mortuaries came back to Gibbons on seeing a laid out body through a window, when visiting Brancusi’s Endless Column in Romania, and blended, leading to the evolution of To Be. Gibbons has been described as a metaphysician.2 The suggestion of the exit of the spirit from the body hangs chillingly in the air. To Be relates to a work not in the exhibition, The Crib. This sculpture is almost life size and looks like a cage; a cage perhaps in which a person having their second childhood may be swaddled. The poignancy of the wooden stool sets up similar questions on birth, life, old age and death.

From the tentative kiss in The Kiss to birth in the Birth of Venus, the poised phase of being or having a consort in Consort, the testament of our lives in Testament, and the final reclining in To Be, we can find a profound narrative in sign of passage. Through the use of the non-figurative language which he initially learnt in St. Martin’s, John Gibbons has profoundly acknowledged the figure, its experiences and environments.

2. Tim Hilton, in the independent on Sunday, 18th December 1996


'John Gibbons, The Small Sculpture 1981-1998'

Lothbury Gallery, London

Published by the NatWest Group Art Collection

ISBN 0 9530716 2 X

'Intimation and Intimacy: John Gibbons' sculpture'

Paul Moorhouse

During a career that now spans more than twenty years, John Gibbons has gained a respected reputation for his distinctive abstract constructions in welded steel. Using industrial scrap or, more recently, linear rods of virgin steel, his work is characterised by its strength of formal composition and its depth of imaginative invention. Until the present exhibition, however, it has always been assumed that a defining feature of his sculpture was its large scale. Many of the works he made in the 1980s were related to the size of the human body and, though abstract, seemed almost architectural in character. The enigmatic spaces he created suggested the absence of - or perhaps future occupation by - a human figure. Later pieces were more expansive and industrial in character, incorporating walkways, bridges, ladders and towers. But as the sculptures shown here for the first time reveal, Gibbons has also made - alongside these larger works - pieces which are more modest in size. Though smaller, these sculptures are in no sense subsidiary and, indeed, their scale is inseparable from the particular concerns that they manifest. As such they constitute an important complementary, but previously unknown, aspect of his art.

Gibbons has observed that the central subject of his work is 'the experience of being alive' and he has explained that his sculpture constitutes a 'reflection on the nature of what it is to be human'. As these statements demonstrate, his concerns transcend a preoccupation with representing the outer, literal appearance of things. Instead, Gibbons' primary aim has been to use his art as a means of exploring and representing inner experience: feelings, memories, unconscious ideas and associations. To that end, since the early 1980s his work increasingly has embraced the use of metaphor. He has exploited the capacity of certain abstract shapes, found materials, and their arrangement, to be identified with, and to evoke a range of subjective phenomena. In this way his endeavour has been to create abstract sculpture which is rich in association and reference, capable of expressing complex shades of allusive meaning.

Darragh's Place is the earliest work in the present exhibition and it stands at the beginning of what can be considered his mature sculpture. Significantly, it shows Gibbons' establishment of a dialogue between formal considerations and an implied subject matter. The starting point for the work was the thought of making something which resembled a room. Despite subsequent development during the three years it was in progress, the final sculpture retains this architectural connotation. Its front, sides and back are recognisable as such, despite asymmetrical features around this underlying structure. It is apparent, however, that the work's significance resides not only in its external characteristics. The front contains a vertical aperture, clearly an entrance to a hidden interior. This darkened internal space is a mystery. We are made aware of its existence, and are invited to enter it - but in imagination only. Occupying the sculpture in this way gives access, as it were, to a place where the viewer may contemplate the associations it generates.

The roots of this kind of relationship between observer and object can be traced to Gibbons' past. Born in County Clare, in Western Ireland, his Roman Catholic, upbringing bore the stamp of religious devotion in its holy places, rituals and sacred objects. In these buildings and artefacts Gibbons perceived their significance as contexts or containers for intense human experience. Darragh's Place resonates with such associations. It recalls in particular chapels, and also tabernacles and reliquary boxes whose still and secret interiors contain sacred objects: the focus for meditation on fundamental questions relating to existence. At the same time, Darragh's Place involves connotations of a secular nature. Its scale, and the way we confront it closely and face on, invite comparison with a human head. And, like the religious artefacts that the work also implies, the head is a locus for experience; indeed it is the sanctuary for consciousness - unseen, intangible yet essential. Darragh's Place is thus concerned with the idea of containment, advanced in the way it elides architectural space with the human body. This alignment is based on the perception that architecture and the body are both containers for life; and imagery relating to both can therefore function metaphorically for his exploration of different aspects of experience. In this way, Darragh's Place heralds some central themes of Gibbons' art.

In his larger sculpture there is a recurrent implication that an entire figure is involved and the ambition of the issues addressed is in proportion to these considerations of scale. Birth, the rituals of different kinds of human activity, relations between people, movement through the fabric of the world, and death are among the themes which recur. In the case of the smaller works, however, there is a sense that scaling down entails a focusing and intensifying of their subject matter and an engagement with areas of experience which are more private and intimate. The area of human sensibility most strongly evoked on this smaller scale is that of sexuality. Descendants Call is teasing, almost flirtatious, in the way it manipulates the viewer. The 'tabernacle' entrance recurs and again we are made aware of a hidden interior. Here it is obscured by a disc whose aureole-like surface markings introduce a suspicion - or a promise - of something organic. One of the most distinctive characteristics of Gibbons' sculpture is its capacity to arouse subtle but powerful feelings not often encountered in art - curiosity, temptation, expectancy and anticipation. Like a siren, the work seems to call, luring the observer to look inside. But in order to see into the shadowy cavity we must peer over the circular shape - with some difficulty. Here, we are rewarded with a glimpse of a sensual form: like a secret revealed in a darkened room.

In Place of Angels the entrance to the 'tabernacle' has been exposed and its perimeter has assumed a shape reminiscent of lips. As before, connotations of a head and hence a face are suggested, but this is underscored by intimations of an erogenous nature. In Venus such suggestions are inescapable and the sculpture has become an erotic totem. The labial shapes form the entrance - at once intimidating and seductive - to a strange icon of sexual desire. Goddess and Night's Desire are no less erotogenic but such references are subsumed within an architectural setting. We are returned to the idea of the body as a kind of building, or temple, for experience. In Night's Desire the abutting pillar-like forms suggest a sacred place. Goddess continues those reverential implications and, unlike Night's Desire, the entrance is open, conveying desire and invitation.

Gibbons' sculptures can be considered as contexts, or places of embarkation, for making imaginative journeys. But the course and nature of those journeys are facilitated and guided by his manipulation of detail, whose importance is paramount. The shape, character and position of individual elements provide clues, or generate associations, and in their cumulative effect the character of the work resides. The role of detail has become crucial in the linear sculptures which Gibbons has made since 1996. In contrast to the earlier pieces which used sheet steel or found scrap parts, the recent linear sculptures are made entirely out of lengths of steel rod. Previously, while a work was in progress, the look of individual parts would throw up references and suggest lines of development. This differs radically from the linear sculpture whose unpremeditated character and meaning evolves from detail improvised while the work is in progress.

The recent works are thus even more exacting in an exploratory sense, a development made evident in their transparent, almost skeletal structures. Themes proposed earlier are continued. The cage-like appearance of Temple and Cathedral, for example, makes an explicit connection with the idea of containment. And both pieces use this idea as a bridge between references to the human head and to architecture. In Temple an analogy between a cranium and a dome is drawn; in Cathedral, the head seems crowned by a spire. However, the works now appear almost like X-rays of the earlier sculpture. The lines of steel adumbrate shape, but we now pass directly though to the interior. 'Outside' and 'inside' are held in suspension and we are aware of both simultaneously. In this way, the transparency of the sculpture is identifiable with his endeavour as a whole: going beyond external appearances in order to reveal and illuminate that which lies within.