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Image of Angel II by John Gibbons
John Gibbons, Angel II. Photo © John Gibbons

John Gibbons

Work exhibited: Angel II.

Since the early 1980s, a very large proportion of John Gibbons’ sculpture has connoted architectural structures, albeit of extremely unfamiliar shapes 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 millennium, Gibbons’ 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 postmodernity 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 offcuts 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.

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