Inside his studio off Pearl Street, Jeff Gibbons is mulling over his latest work, Orion’s Belty Button. The earthen sculpture, a helmet-size hornbeam root ball, rests on a wooden pedestal, evoking some sort of mythical celestial body. Holding a tiny LED lightbulb in his right hand, Gibbons prepares to plant it in the center of his imagined cosmic web.
“It is actually going to have a light inside of it that will resemble a star,” he says, his left finger hovering beside the stringy dirt-clad orb. “The roots will play with the light, making it flicker in the distance as you walk around it.” The once-subterranean tendrils are becoming pathways in a universe of Gibbons’s making.
Since arriving in Provincetown in October for his winter-long fellowship at the Fine Arts Work Center, the Detroit native has developed a deep affection for the town’s natural landscapes.
Gibbons spends much of his time outdoors here, exploring the Beech Forest, Hatches Harbor, and the Fox Run trail and occasionally collecting objects for his mixed-media work. City chaos and “the constant presence of the manmade” has so far given him lifelong anxiety, he says.
“This is the longest time I’ve spent in an area that is forested,” says Gibbons, who lived in the town of Alfred, in upstate New York, just before starting the FAWC fellowship.
For nine years before that, Gibbons lived and made art in a warehouse in Dallas with no windows except a skylight in the center of the room. “I used to jokingly call the space an ‘oubliette’, which was a sort of prison that was just a hole or tower with an opening in the top where they dropped people inside, forever,” he says.
“I grew up in Detroit and I’ve been looking over my shoulder for most of my life,” says Gibbons. He describes a childhood marked by events traumatic enough to inspire paranoia in anyone. At a young age, he says, he frequently turned to drugs to handle his fears. But an early passion for video production and music also helped him cope.
Twenty-one and looking for a new start, he went to Key West where his father was living. There, he started taking art classes at a community college. “I knew then that art is what I need to do.”
Gibbons went on to complete an undergraduate degree at the University of Tampa, followed by a Master of Fine Arts from the University of Texas at Arlington. His work has been shown in Dallas at Nasher Sculpture Center, the Power Station, and the Goss-Michael Foundation and he has also had exhibitions in Mexico, Japan, and various countries in Europe.
In his upcoming show at the Fine Arts Work Center, titled mushwomb to mushtomb, Gibbons reimagines natural materials he’s found in Provincetown, including leaves, feathers, rocks, branches, and that tree root ball, to conjure up worlds that transcend the confines of ordinary physical and social reality.
His works, distinctively sparse, sincere, and somehow barbaric, put real objects into surrealist contexts. “There’s a sci-fi quality to a lot of it,” says Gibbons. “There’s also a dystopian hope.”
Perception, both of himself and his environment, emerges as a recurring theme in Gibbons’s work. “I have an anthropological look at my own existence,” he says. Then “everything I make is some sort of reaction to what’s happening and some sort of conversation about it.”
Though many of his works resist explanation, there is a coherence to the worlds he creates in his art: each painting, video, or sculpture candidly captures relatable existential anxieties and possibilities.
Gust, the smallest sculpture in this exhibition, presents a vignette that is as surreal as it is diminutive: a fingernail-size chair teetering on a dead floating leaf’s edge. The delicate perch seems to await its occupant, stirring the viewer’s imagination: Who is this seat intended for? The piece evokes feelings of both whimsy and worry.
In Forest Door, an open mailbox rendered in acrylic on gesso is perched like a lone soldier on a hill. This scene is framed not just with wood but with Gibbons’s words, looping around like a hula hoop of text. “The spot in the woods where two trees grow side by side makes what feels like a door in the middle of nothing,” reads the message he wrote on the frame while standing inside it.
The mailbox’s door is another “door in the middle of nothing.” It hangs open alluringly, a small, curious portal, asking to be closed, maybe, or inviting something in.
In Said the Rock, Gibbons orchestrates a tête-à-tête between two stony figures. Merging the mundane with the surreal, he shapes their tiny sprightly legs from epoxy clay, setting them atop rocks scavenged from the FAWC parking lot. “Dry again,” one figure says — a line Gibbons borrowed from Cyril Connolly’s book of aphorisms, The Unquiet Grave.
The remark “is sort of antagonizing. Or it could be thoughtful, who knows? It’s in the rock world,” Gibbons says. One doesn’t know, but one can guess it’s a world in which even rocks have their anxieties, dilemmas, and hopes.