When the Going Gets Graphic
American visual artist Mark Thomas Gibson is currenly showing at LOYAL in Stockholm with what proves to be a stellar exhibition of the year so far. We sit down a few hours prior to his departure speaking about his body of work which is seated in a realm alluding to the graphic novel, while often channelling his realities as an African-American man in a most precarious society. "I think we sell ourselves short when we think that what we do, does not affect people", he says about the inherent power of art to impact the political, noting moreover; "It might not make You get up and move but it may just make someone else."
C-P: Your art notably brings the visual aesthetic of the graphic comic novel to mind. Where does this stem from for you and what might have been a few considerations impacting this visual identity of your work?
M.T.G: I originally had an attraction towards graphic work and illustration from an early age but my art education was one that was a little bit more formal. I was definitely pushed away from this interest and I have been told that it is a lesser form of art. Looking back now I realize my professors basically lacked the education and understanding to really put it in proper context. I think about how comics, illustrations and caricatures throughout history, in many cultures and societies have always been a way to address the political. To speak about what's currently going on in society. Like was the case in in the 50's with EC Comics or horror comics that dealt a lot with what was present politically in America and dealt also a lot with what we are thinking about with race and gender, and that was generally found troubling because it was reaching children. There's two sides to it; one where people can look at a certain type of art form and say; Oh, that's low-brow, it has no content and no value and the other is that it is dangerous and has power. That's why I think people have an issue with it; because it does have a certain power. And it takes a certain level of skill to control or command that power.
C-P: Since your work is narrative-driven, what are some narratives that are central in your more recent body of work?
M.T.G: I do a lot with my own experience; what's going on with me and happening in the world around me. For me it has largely been racial issues in America. I'm an African-American male of a large stature and I'm also an American which by itself has certain political meanings. I'm living with many people in a weird political space where things don't appear sane so my work is dealing with the instability of what is occuring right now, not just in our country but how it is affecting the rest of the world as well. I used to try to really not make work that dealt with certain issues, consciously trying to work in a realm outside of that but then I just couldn't. It was a fight not to engage with that. It's just who I am. It's what I talk about and think about in life.
C-P: There are recurring figurative characters that appear in your work of which Mr Wolfson is the known protagonist. Why the choice of the werewolf, and does the character serve as a form of alter ego of you?
M.T.G: On some level it is; although I don't put him through all my shit or directly through it. He is the idea or the embodiment of a monster; a body that is pushed to the fringes of society and one that has been subjected to trauma and has to relive that drama which is the deal with being a werewolf. The werewolf can be compared to the characterization of a vampire which alludes rather to a sexual fantasy and even to a negative rape fantasy in some cultures. In the case of the werewolf, it's a story around somebody being attacked and dealing with that month after month after month. And much like other forms of trauma you end up producing it for other people in so far you become the person in turn preying on other people. You become the one that is violent and it isn't because of choice but through the way the outside cirumstance is affecting you. There was that moment for me as a man growing up in America where you think based on outside perception; Am I supposed to be violent? Am I supposed to be fucked up and a monster because that's the way the world seems to be playing it for me. That's the character I'm being cast as even as I'm just trying to mind my own business.
C-P: When did the character first appear?
M.T.G: Years ago. I've been dwelling on him for 15 years or so, in some incarnation or form. One thing that I noticed when I was making my first book, going through my old sketchbooks from as far as back as middle-school, was the werewolf being there. In hindsight as an adult, I realize I was trying to say this or feeling that. Part of it, was not being willing to be vulnerable but the character allowed for me to be just that; vulnerable.
C-P: This present and ongoing exhibition at Loyal, what are you showing and how do the paintings on view relate to your drawings that preceed them?
M.T.G: The show's title is Gauntlet and I played around that for a little bit because I wanted to talk about this idea of gauntlet being something that can be used in many ways. Throwing down the gauntlet as accepting a challenge or it can be running through a gauntlet, physically getting pummelled and having to survive to be initiated into a space. I'm actually playing a lot with time in this show. "The End is Nigh" is a phrase that appears in the show and is a phrase that is speaking of this impending almost-here-kind-of-moment and at the same time I'm also giving you the aftermath.
As for the aftermath, the way I've been trying to design these paintings is for them to be reflective of what wasn't in the drawings that they are based on which is to heighten or pinpoint some of the things the drawings allude to which is that there is another space; the after space and another form of time. Aside from the paintings, there's also a larger drawing that was something that was scratching in my brain and when I made it and put it on to the wall I realized that it mirrors a certain kind of quiet or stillness that represents my childhood or being a teenager going to South Beach when South Beach was still quiet. It was a place where we would go at night and sit by the water and just be present. We'd talk about our futures and our aspirations. It was a place of shared affection. It was incredible and I will never forget it or the people I experienced that with.
The situation when I'm making my work, is that I'm kind of moving through them and time gets rearranged along the way and I figure out how the narrative is going to move from left ro right but at the same time I try not to withhold myself or censor myself. I know what I'm trying to say, I will usually understand a little further down the road and then come to a certain clarity. With this show I had this aspiration of just having this field of colour and to really think of horisontality in terms of landscape. The weird thing I've noticed about younger people is that they can't think of the horisontal in relation to landscape and I think that has to do with phones; like when shooting landscapes in a vertical. It's funny when people ask about the process of making a painting from a drawing because that's about as old as Western art really goes, you know? We go to the Metropolitan Museum and see a Michelangelo show and you will basically have sketches there for the whole Sistine Chapel. I really respect what the drawing does and how it can speak to other art practices and I just want there to be a kind of flow between those two things. The painting does inform the drawing and the drawing does inform the painting. It's a call and response relationship I have with both.
C-P: On a general note, what role or power do you think art has in the present political climate in the West?
M.T.G: There are two things that come to mind; there is one story and one thought. I had an argument with a friend about Goya's pieces around war and my friend was saying that those didn't do anything and I was saying; Well, the guy had to make them secretely and these were obviously not something that could be highly publicized. And yes, maybe they didn't affect the time he lived in the way he had wanted but it has indeed affected other people.
One story of evidence of art helping relates to meeting John Lewis, representative of Atlanta, Georgia, back in the states. He was a part of the Civil Rights Movement and was among other things assaulted and hit in the head with a brick. He's an amazing proponent of people and he was telling the story of being 15 and having grown up in a peanut farm. At 15 then, he picked up a comic about the bus boycott that was edited by Martin Luther King Jr. From reading that he wrote to Martin Luther King Jr. who sent him a bus ticket which is how he joined Martin Luther King Jr. and became a part of the movement through which he for instance was able to help people getting to vote. And that's the power of this medium and art. It might not make you get up and move but it may just make someone else get up and do just that. Just because it doesn't cause some chaotic wave does not mean it doesn't have impact. I think we sell ourselves short when we think what we do does not affect people. It's strange when certain aspects of the art world are demoted or given some short shrift when other things that are more ephemeral are given more precedence. I mean I think of sustainability; hopefully these things last for a long time and maybe they help communicating with a future civilization telling them what we are, what we believe and what were the things we struggled with.
C-P: You were featured in a piece by David Geers in Frieze Magazine about a new wave of figurative painting which probes critical questions about which bodes are depicted, for whom and to what end. What are your thoughts?
M.T.G: Well for me, I struggle with figuration and it's a form of representation most people can easily just take for granted. How I use the body or do not use the body or how I create space with the presence or the absence of the body is incredibly important to me. I'd never thought of myself as becoming a figurative artist. What I thought was interesting with the text and what he proposes or offers in the article is the idea that many different people are now approaching it from many different ways. There's a return to a healthy lack of fear of using figuration within art, so that you're seeing and evoking many different forms; you're seeing it represent many different terms, with people really using it to the best of their abilities as the medium that it is; one that has a specific language and history. If you can respect and understand that, I feel that you are armed with pretty good tools, right?
Mark Thomas Gibson's "Gauntlet" is on view at LOYAL though May 19, 2018
Images courtesy of LOYAL