Playing Bored Games
Darren Jones With Jeff Gibbons
DJ: Can you talk about your background, where you grew up, your art experience and how you came to be in Dallas?
JG: I grew up in Detroit, and after working as an HVAC technician among other jobs, I left there in myearly twenties, in 2004. I moved to the Florida Keys as an escape to get out of the city. My father had been living in Key West for a couple of years and for both of us it was kind of a place to get away to. I began community college there just to do something because I was pretty lost. I had gone through a drug phase, and dropped out of school. I graduated from there, mostly working with clay, and then went to the University of Tampa for a bachelors in ceramics, and made my way to Dallas for grad school in 2010, at the University of Texas at Arlington. After that I went straight on to do the CentralTrak Residency in Dallas in 2013. It was really the wind that carried me to Dallas, in fact a connection between two teachers that had me apply. After I got my masters, I began showing in Tampa and Key West and then elsewhere.
When did you realize that art was what you were going to do or that it was going to be important?
When I realized it was what I needed to do, and that there wasn’t going to be another option, when I was in Detroit doing all these different jobs. At one point I ended up in a Chrysler factory pushing empty carts off of a truck into an empty warehouse, and then another empty truck would come and I’d push the empty carts into the empty truck and make an empty warehouse. It was this empty job. I went to eat afterwards, sitting in this sandwich shop with all these other guys who had just gotten off work and it was this deadly quiet sort of tomb of people just soullessly eating their food looking defeated. I remember sitting there tearing up and thinking that this is not what life is supposed to be. That moment sticks out in my mind. I knew I needed to find a different path, and I didn’t know at the time that art was going to be that, but I began to take writing music more seriously and dive into those creative parts of my brain more. That was paired with an escapist thing just trying to get the Hell out of the situation I was in, to give me a fresh start. So that was the beginning of it, and there was the regular battle as to whether or not I was doing the right thing, but ultimately I can’t do anything else. Art allows me to roam and look into different things, it is a place that allows me to translate these interests into communication and creativity.
The nucleus of your artistic voice seems to be a combination of sharp social observation, wit, simple material execution, and a hint of pathos. How aware are you of these elements?
Those descriptor words are fine, yes, but I don’t know that I aim for any specific feeling. The basis of what I’m doing is based in a kind of listlessness, or a challenge to myself. I am sort of a bored person for the most part, so I try to find things that interest me. And the work – what makes it out of the studio, I sit with things and if they speak to me, then they stay. I don’t look for, or think about those particular elements you mention while I’m making anything. I think for the most part I want to make things that are interesting to me, and so maybe those things you talked about are what interest me in life so they keep coming out, manifesting in the work. There is a constant self-analyzing and throwing wrenches into my process. If I find that I’m repeating or getting bored, I’ll scrap something, change the studio space, or even not make work for a while.
And is that something you do in your life as well?
Absolutely. I’ve had a very hard time with relationships because of this constant moving, and I’m interested in my life being something like that, this constant waking up. I like looking back having lived all these different lives. It’s bittersweet because part of me would love to settle into something and have some element of comfort in my life, but I understand that such things are illusionistic, and I do have a deep interest in how all of the little things that make up life correlate into this larger picture, of not being able to bring together the phenomena that is being alive. So I am there as this kind of ghost that is observing and looking and also interacting. There is a lot of muck in there, which I like, but I’m not interested in organizing it, or defining it. I like swimming in it and having things emerge from it. Some things pop out like a sneeze and others I will toil over for long periods of time. I like that variance. I don’t want to have one way of making things, or of working on things.
You are very intellectually and emotionally aware. You know that a piece like Titmouse Sunrise (a video in which an automatic recliner chair attempts to throw off the cushions weighing it down) is very funny and that the audience is probably going to laugh, but the chair also seems tired, and regretful and frustrated, it speaks to domestic stasis and apathy. Beyond the witty entry point what do you want to convey?
That is the separation between making, and showing the work. I reach a point of distance from the stuff that I’ve made and I look at what it does, what it is and what it can do. I’m looking for things that are multilayered and cannot be nailed down. A lot of who I am is involved with a deep humor mixed with sadness, an anxiety, anger, all of that. So the humor is important but it is not always there. When I made that chair, I was just playing with it, and it seemed the right thing to do. It was kind of funny but even as I was doing it, I was considering a lot of the elements that you are talking about. Then I sat on that piece for about a year before I decided to show it.
You sat on it for a year?
And the reason that ended up being shown was because it had all that stuff in it, and to me it was worthwhile and worth sharing.
You seem to have a personality, a lifestyle or an approach that is a throwback to before social media, and hyper-connectivity. You seem a more self-contained artist because of that, and most concerned with the work itself, rather than how many likes it gets on Instagram. And yet you went through school, and are having exhibitions; you cannot be completely detached, things don’t just happen. So you are in some way playing the art world game. What do you think of how art is shown today?
You see a lot of this tendency for posting the artistic process, of making things and to me that is fair, but it is looking for small validations. I think people have been doing that forever, but social media is a more direct way of finding it. I think that hugely affects what an artist’s work is. I don’t want to reveal what my work is until I know. Like you say I live in this age with everyone else, I’m a human being and I’ll desire those things too. But there is a part of me that is constantly backing away from those scenarios, and instead figuring out what the work means first. Being with the work in person is how you experience it, ideally, and that can get lost. The social media existence is a means to show, it’s another form to put something in, like a gallery, the tv or the street, and I utilize it in that way. I have an Instagram account, a Facebook account. I use them for what they are, but I try not to rely on them. It’s another form of psychological space that I interact with. I will use it for a bit of advertising, but even that feels strange, partly because these sites are always changing. For example, Instagram has gone from “look at this”, to “look at me.” So I think about it but it is a small part of my life, and it doesn’t enter into the fabric of what my work is. To me there is a layer of unknowingness to it all, meaning that I don’t really understand from a post, the larger scope of what an artist is doing and how it affects them.
You see, that is a rare position. It’s your intuitive reaction to social media but it sets you apart, at a time when a great many artists are consistently using social media to promote themselves, and almost living through it. I mean, even if the person isn’t actually pictured in a post, every single image is a selfie. So to be wary of that seems healthy for artists, and refreshing because it’s not necessarily good for the work.
Its similar in grad school where if you don’t insist on people giving honest feedback it can become uncritically supportive to the point where the actual work is secondary. It’s about patting this person, so that they’ll pat you. When someone actually comes to see the work it’s not new, they’ve already seen it. We forget what it means to be a body in space and go somewhere and see something. The social media aspect can strip that requirement.
That movie, The Purge; wouldn’t it be great if, for 24 hours every month, we were all honest about artists’ work; just unadorned response. As it is the social media format makes the quality irrelevant. Sycophancy, and likes, are paramount. Stray from that and people becomes hyper-sensitive. Everything, and everyone, is described as “amazing” “thoughtful” “talented” or “honored.” It’s mostly nonsense, lies, or at best hyperbole.
That’s an article you could write. That could be a new holiday.
The Purge: Art World Edition!
Your last exhibition at Conduit Gallery in Dallas was “Clown Ambulance”. Is that your preferred crucible? The gallery space.
It’s not always the gallery, or even my preferred method. If someone gave me an internet show I’d just navigate that structure the best I could. It could be anywhere. I go into it thinking about what the space is in relation to my work. I’m interested in work that subverts any of those spaces. I did a collaborative project with a former studio-mate, Jesse Morgan Barnett, called “Laser Tag 2015”. The first video was this quasi-Hunger Games style invitation to a team of people. It was a video that listed those involved and showed images of them, and just said “Laser Tag 2015”. Then we kept releasing videos and event updates. The next one showed the date, the next one showed the time and date, and the next release showed a location, time and date. Then we met and played this game together, and sweated, and then it was over. It was a group of Texas curators, artists and writers. Jesse had a team and I had a team. That was the artwork, it never existed, it was a closed system of sorts that was a show. It was also collaborative, or whatever you want to call it. But it had nothing to do with the gallery.
A particular question about an artwork that you showed in Clown Ambulance, called Ibbo. It’s described as a “painting that blew into the studio parking lot during a thunderstorm”. I mean that is the most romantic idea. It’s performative. Art never touches the sublime, but this bends in that direction. Did it really just blow past your studio?
Yes, there is another element of that. I was standing outside with my studio-mates and we all watched this painting blow in, and the guy whose studio I was moving into was out there with us and he walked over to it and grabbed it. He brought it back over, and looked at me, and he was moving out, and I was moving in, and it was this really sweet moment when he said “you need to have this”, and I said “yes, please, thank you”, (laughter). I mean another split second and I was going to run over and grab it, but that is romantic, and it’s how it happened.
So in a way it was appropriate that he gave it to you as a kind of passing along of something. That is a core of your work, the simple gesture, that in this case wasn’t something you expected. That is high romance! That is brilliant, chance, the natural world, and humanity.
What projects have you worked on recently, or will you be working on?
I have completed the inaugural iteration of an artist exchange program, between the Power Station here in Dallas, and a ceramics factory in Guadalajara, Mexico, called Cerámica Suro. I went there for a month to make work, and I also had a show in Guadalajara. Then back in Dallas I had a show at the Power Station. They were dual shows, with me and a Mexican artist, Gabriel Rico. So we both showed in both locations.
I’m doing to do an exhibition with Gregory Ruppe in Marseille, France on June 19. It’s called Le Sud Bébé. I don’t know a lot about it yet. At the end of the year I’m taking over a space in a flea market to open a store that sells extra arms to people in the future, called Arm Again Again. I also look forward to working with Conduit Gallery again at some point, and I am working on making some films.
Jeff Gibbons, thank you.