The first display of portraits by the sculptor John Gibbons has opened at the National Portrait Gallery
. It is the latest in the Gallery's Interventions series focusing on twentieth-century artists who have developed innovatory approaches to portraiture.
This display, comprising dramatic works in welded steel, explores Gibbons's treatment of the human head as a 'container' for experience, identity, personality and mind. A special wall-mounted installation has been constructed to showcase five powerful sculptures, dating from 1981 to the present, which transform industrial materials into enigmatic cage-like forms. Three of the sculptures appear to float high up on angled shelves built into the Gallery walls whilst two smaller ones are given a more intimate setting at a low level.
During a career that now extends for over 30 years, John Gibbons (b.1949) has secured a reputation as one of Britain's leading sculptors. Like Sir Anthony Caro, with whom he worked as an assistant in the late 1970s, Gibbons's work is closely associated with large, abstract, floor-based sculpture in welded steel. As a student at St Martin's School of Art (1972-6), he was the assistant to the portrait sculptor Oskar Nemon who was an important early influence. Both these affinities are apparent in Gibbons's work which, although apparently abstract, has always been infused with references to a human presence.
The earlier sculptures, Darragh's Place and Portrait of Sharon, named after the artists' son and daughter, began as evocations of place before assuming human attributes. Their small, cube-like shapes recall tabernacles or reliquary boxes, both containers of a spiritual nature. The holy sites, rituals and sacred objects associated with the artist's Roman Catholic upbringing in County Clare in Western Ireland inform these sculptures. However, while working on these pieces, increasingly Gibbons saw them in terms of the human head, recognizing the associations they prompted with his son and daughter.
The three most recent works evoke members of his family and friends. In some instances more than one individual is suggested by the same sculpture. Now employing more open forms, linear stainless steel rods and bar, these sculptures continue to engage with the sitter's inner life - that mysterious place which Gibbons perceives at the core of portraiture.
Paul Moorhouse, 20th Century Curator of the National Portrait Gallery, London, says: 'In some respects Gibbons seems an unlikely artist for the Gallery's displays. At first, his work appears to have little connection with portraiture. At a fundamental level, however, Gibbons has not only engaged with portraiture but has extended the language of this genre in radical ways.'
Works on Display:
Darragh's Place 1981- 4 by John Gibbons
Gibbons was born in County Clare in Western Ireland and raised as a Roman Catholic. This religious upbringing informs early sculptures such as Darragh's Place, which recalls a tabernacle or reliquary box. While working on it, Gibbons was reminded of his early experience of modeling portrait heads, and he recognized particular associations with Darragh, his son. Its box-like form thus evokes a container of a spiritual nature as well as suggesting a particular human head, which also 'contains' experience. Gibbons, found himself modeling a 'face' on to the container's front'.
Portrait of Sharon 1981-4 by John Gibbons
Like Darragh's Place, this sculpture makes a connection between a box-like container and a human head. The arched openings at the front reveal a darker, intimate space, suggesting a tiny chapel. These apertures can also be read as eyes leading to the inner, private space of human consciousness. In making this connection, the head is presented as a kind of sanctuary for thought and private experience. As the work developed, the individual brought to mind by these associations was Sharon, the artist's daughter.
Your Story/White Blackbird 2008-9 by John Gibbons
Gibbons comments that, while working on these sculptures, 'I listen with my eyes'. That is to say, he is receptive to the associations each produces. As this work progressed, its formal characteristics became linked imaginatively with Patrick, his grandfather, whom he recalls as a strong, contemplative individual with a streak of mischief. As a child, Gibbons was invited by his grandfather to search a local wood for a white blackbird: a memory recalled in the work's title.
Jane/E/ And Still 2008-9 by John Gibbons
While creating this sculpture Gibbons responded on a number of levels to the imaginative associations it generated. At the outset, he worked with Matisse's Portrait of Madame Matisse (1913) in mind. The pale face and dark-eyed gaze of the painter's wife became linked with Gibbons's own maternal grandmother, a woman connected in the artist's mind with quiet strength of character and elegance. These qualities, in turn, suggested a further correspondence with Jane, the artist's partner.
Grainne/Saying Hallo 2008-9 by John Gibbons
This sculpture is the least literal portrait within this group but also evokes, by association, a specific individual. Originally titled 'Electric Brain', its structure recalls the artist's memory of two experiences involving Grainne, a beautiful woman friend, who committed suicide. During intimate conversations with her, the artist felt he was led to 'a dark place', during which he had a vivid visual impression of his friend's mental state. The process of making the work reawakened and accommodated these memories.