Image of Presence (Wait) by John Gibbons
John Gibbons, Presence (Wait). Photo © Dr Jim Roseblade

John Gibbons

Works exhibited: Presence.

Two of the three works that John Gibbons has included in this exhibition come from the Presence series of brooding metal orthostats. A third is currently on show in the exhibition, Light, in Winchester Cathedral.

Virtually every part of these highly concentrated works has been milled and abraded to produce a swirling, rippling pattern that entangles and confuses light. Even slight movement on the part of the viewer circling round these sculptures will trigger a release of visual energy. But energy does not merely skid across their surfaces, it has been recruited in a tremendous effort of containment. The welds and patches that hold everything together seem to have enclosed a source of power that presses against its confinement in a way characteristic of much of Gibbons’s output.

The elevation and dimensions of the individual works evoke the origins of monumental sculpture in many traditions, particularly the Egyptian and Greek, and the tension between abstraction and figuration recalls the compactness of expression of the Cycladic bronze age. This amalgamation of the archaic and the contemporary seems to place the work in a modernist tradition of the kind sponsored by Wilhelm Worringer in Abstraction and Empathy (1908), a text that relegated sentimental Romanticism in favour of the austere impersonality of ancient devotional art.

If 19th century sculpture was an art of empathy, of identification with aspects of the human condition, with impermanence and frailty, its 20th century successor was to focus on what exceeded individual human experience, on the kind of unknowability traditionally associated with the divine. If Gibbons’ rearing stelae invite any form of identification, it is of the kind associated with totemic objects that give a visual form to an unseen presence, a spirit that forms the basis simultaneously of a belief system and a social system, as if the two could not be thought of separately.

The narrow bands of colour that encircle the two Presence sculptures seem manufactured and lacking in nuance. Their machine made character expresses perhaps the insufficiency of humanity’s attempts to harness and contain those sources of power and energy – literal and metaphorical – that remind us of the limits of our skill and knowledge, our precisely technological stance towards the world.

The bright pigment applied to First Moment achieves a similar effect, acting paradoxically as a form of camouflage, making the sculpture blend into a postmodern aesthetic environment that attempts to draw the meanings of the work up to the surface, denying its interiority. The form of Gibbons’s sculpture seems to propose exactly the opposite.

Its curious lobes seem to have been extruded under the intense pressure of a hidden agency, an internal or subterranean force capable of transferring energy into form: a reminder, in the shape of a work of art, of the primary creativity of a ‘first moment’ to which the history of all human making has remained secondary.

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