Jeffrey Gibson. (From left) Red Moon, Red Sunset, and Desert Sky. 2021, fringe, metal, dimensions unavailable, deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, Lincoln. Photograph by the author.

These days, subtlety is a rarity. Politicians and artists alike get more cartoonish and heavy-handed with each passing year. I have far more patience for artists like Jeffrey Gibson who are able to create with nuance, showing gray areas to be more colorful than a midpoint between black and white. While Gibson continues this subtle approach in his latest exhibition at the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, some of his collaborators do just the opposite. But perhaps this is not a bad thing.
Entering “INFINITE INDIGENOUS QUEER LOVE” on the second floor of the museum, two rooms show collaborative videos made between Gibson and other Indigenous American artists. I entered just in time to see a land acknowledgment by the Indigenous Kinship Collective (IKC), performed atop Gibson’s monument Because Once You Enter My House, It Becomes Our House (2020/1) during its stay at Socrates Sculpture Park in New York. An Indigenous woman speaks into a megaphone, gesturing to the skyline behind her: “The Mohawk iron workers built this fucking city…. As long as you are on our land un-welcomed, you are participating in our genocide” (Socrates Sculpture Park 2021, 47sec - 50sec, 2min 37 sec - 2min 44sec). This blunt, aggressive denunciation sounds familiar after nearly two years of heated discourse in the wake of George Floyd. However familiar it may be, and however important, it makes for a jarring entry to the exhibition.
This entrance is a far-cry from the ethos of Gibson’s previous exhibition at the Denver Art Museum. In 2018, “Like a Hammer” presented the artist’s work from 2011 to its present. After a mythic trip to the laundromat where he washed his paintings on three hot cycles, Gibson felt liberated to explore his interest in identity, craft, and materials (Adamson in Lukavic 2018, 45). In “Like a Hammer,” Gibson employed geometric abstraction alongside “camp” aesthetics and Native pattern and crafts, like beadwork and ceremonial dress, to explore his own identity as a queer, indigenous man. Curator John P. Lukavic wrote in the exhibition catalogue, “From here on out, all movement forward is at once Indigenous and contemporary—a material manifestation of [Gibson’s] own identity.” For Gibson, this blending of “Native and non-Native inspiration” is a way of finding self-acceptance while inviting others into the same (Lukavic 2018, 29). In a video interview for the incarnation of “Like a Hammer” at the Seattle Art Museum (2019), Gibson says, “So what I hope the work is able to do is send a signal to not just queer youth on the reservation or in communities, but maybe people who just feel like they need an expansiveness that’s not presented to them in that context, that there is a community for them that wants to support them and wants to hear from them” (Seattle Art Museum 2019, 4min 42sec - 5min 01sec).
Gibson invites us—all of us—into difficult conversations with a rare grace. The rest of the works in deCordova’s “INFINITE INDIGENOUS QUEER LOVE” are more along these lines. Outside the video installation is a hallway of colorful posters, emblazoned in block letters with affirmations like THE FUTURE IS PRESENT, I WANNA GIVE YOU DEVOTION, and KNOW YOU’RE MAGIC BABY (2019). This is the Gibson I remember. Continuing upstairs, a gallery of mixed media works on paper combine bright colors with beadwork, photographs, and found objects. With a mixture of artifacts from activist movements and problematic tourist memorabilia, works like RED POWER (2021) bring viewers back into those tricky questions: Of these objects, what is a genuine part of the Indigenous American experience? Of the queer experience? What here are remnants of stereotypes, used to oppress? And how do all of these things add up to an understanding of personal identity? Social realities are painted and beaded into these works, without the need of a megaphone. This is the Gibson I came here for.
Hovering in the next room are the true stars of the exhibition. Three monoliths stand—wait, no, float!—in the middle of a deep-purple room, done up in gorgeous yellow to purple, pink to orange, and red to black to white. These hanging pillars are made from thousands of lengths of fringe, a material used to decorate the garments of Powwow dancers. They are delicate in their gradations of color, but strong and silent in their monumental presence. A quiet awe pervades the gallery, attendants like acolytes doing their best to keep visitors from touching. Nonetheless, the layers upon layers of fringe are so alluring that the small, touch-safe sample does not satisfy the urge to run your hands through the genuine article.
Many of us find a sacred power in these gorgeous contradictions of solid and permeable, massive and weightless. The curators at deCordova liken these sculptures to the ancient and pop-cultural sublimes of Stonehenge and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Murray Whyte writes for the Boston globe, “Shimmering in silence, aglow in the shadow, the trio of pieces remakes the space as something indeterminately holy, like a temple or shrine” (White 2021). Gibson embraces the sublime—the overpowering, ineffable experience of beauty—in ways that many contemporary artists deny. Modernism’s baby is often thrown out with colonialism’s bathwater. Certainly, the strictures of formalism contributed to an elitist and racist art world. The potential beauty of abstraction, however, is often forgotten in the name of a newer progress. Refreshingly, Gibson recovers some of modernism’s best contributions—Minimalist gestalt, geometric abstraction, Abstract Expressionism—and reinterprets them in a new cultural context. While the monoliths nod to works by Donald Judd, Barnett Newman, and Mark Rothko, among others, they enliven these hitherto homogeneous art movements with Powwow regalia and nightclub enthusiasm.
After a superlative experience like this, it is tempting to dismiss IKC’s acknowledgement as too blunt, the group less adept at navigating complex conversations than Gibson. As the visitor exits through the sculpture park, however, they are confronted again with Gibson’s monument from IKC’s video: Because Once You Enter My House, It Becomes Our House. This massive step-pyramid is a little sun-faded and worse for wear after its travels from New York, but if anything this enlarges the artwork’s presence. Fragments of posters, designed collaboratively with other Indigenous artists, are still barely visible. Like an archaeological find, it writes its way into a new history. One side of the pyramid has fared better than the rest, reading down the front, “IN NUMBERS TOO BIG TO IGNORE.”
The Indigenous Kinship Collective said the same thing: “You’re on our land and we are still here, in numbers too big to ignore.” (Socrates Sculpture Park 2021, 1min 28 sec - 1min 38 sec).
Much has changed since Gibson’s 2018 exhibition at the Denver Art Museum—or rather, not much has changed for America’s minority citizens, but white awareness of racial divides has grown. Post-George-Floyd America has seen protests, elections, insurrections, and major court verdicts, for better and worse. Within this new awareness, artists and creators are working to redefine past notions of white versus black, cowboy versus Indigenous (see Garret-Davis 2021). For instance, the Hulu original series Reservation Dogs—starring Indigenous people, made by Indigenous people, and shot entirely in the Muscogee Nation—has received rave reviews, and marks a historic moment in American television (St. Felix 2021). Gibson’s slate of three major museum exhibitions in the past four years also points to a turn in our public consciousness (Gibson 2021). But the fact remains: we are all on Indigenous land.
Walking away from the exhibition at the Denver Art Museum, I was embarrassed at how little the idea of contemporary Indigenous art had occurred to me before seeing “Like a Hammer,” if at all. This embarrassment was quickly countered by Gibson’s welcoming embrace. Walking away from “INFINITE INDIGENOUS QUEER LOVE,” I found myself thinking more about IKC and less about Gibson. Anger changed to conviction: conviction for our nation’s circumstances, and conviction for my gut-reaction to the truth. IKC’s fury is most certainly warranted, their statements most certainly true. Gibson takes a warmer approach, inviting us to “co-imagine the possibilities of an Indigenous horizon” (Boney Jr. in Lukavic, 38). But this approach should prepare us to hear the harsher facts, that horizon only achieved after a great distance. If “INFINITE INDIGENOUS QUEER LOVE” suffers from anything, it is only from the order of curation. If you want to walk yourself into these conversations a little more slowly, a little more manageably, start on the third floor.
deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum. Wall text. “Jeffrey Gibson: INFINITE INDIGENOUS QUEER LOVE.” 15 October, 2021 to 13 March, 2022. The Trustees of Reservations, Lincoln.
Garret-Davis, Josh. “From Lil Nas X to ‘Nomadland’: How the American West is Being Reimagined.” KCET, 10 November, 2021.
Gibson, Jeffrey. “Resume.” Jeffrey Gibson Studio, website. 2021.
Lukavic, John P., ed. Jeffrey Gibson: Like a Hammer. New York: Prestel Publishing for the Denver Art Museum, 2018.
Seattle Art Museum. “Material & Identity Merge in Jeffrey Gibson's ‘Like A Hammer’ at Seattle Art Museum.” Youtube video, 31 January, 2019.
Socrates Sculpture Park. “IKC's Land Acknowledgment Atop Jeffrey Gibson's Monument at Socrates.” YouTube video, 6 January, 2021.
St. Félix, Doreen. “‘Reservation Dogs’ is a Near-Perfect Study of Dispossession.” The New Yorker, 20 September, 2021.
Whyte, Murray. “At the deCordova, Jeffrey Gibson weaves a dazzling display of subversion and joy.” The Boston Globe, 4 November, 2021.