Not the guarded, but the guardians in James Gilbert’s new work by Bondo Wyszpolski
A Historic Point of Interest and other Landmarks on Titan Road 2015
Pink sandbags and a few two-by-fours to keep them propped up. What shall we make of this? Out of the gate, I was perplexed and, honestly, not too interested. So, that’s my starting point in what turned out to be a rewarding encounter and learning experience when I met James Gilbert, whose solo exhibition, “Sledgehammer.Bullet.Bomb,” opens this evening at the Manhattan Beach Art Center.
Curated by Homeira Goldstein and presented by Time 4 Art, the show contains nine new sculptures and two site-specific works, plus a video that addresses intentional destruction of cultural heritage sites. But is the work on view really serious or just playful, or both?
Well, it’s both. Gilbert is a thoughtful artist who’s unafraid to push buttons and boundaries, with what I’m guessing is an impish sense of humor. We met recently over dinner at the exclusive Goldstein Café and talked far into the night.
THE SYMBOL BECOMES THE OBJECT
“Dealing with basic compositional elements is never enough for me,” Gilbert says. “It has to be something that resonates with some kind of social impact. Those are the kinds of projects I really gear myself towards.”
Although the projects themselves vary, he adds, “It always has to deal with social issues and identity. It could be social media issues, women’s rights issues, workers’ issues. Ultimately, you can distill it down in terms of where does identity come from. In this particular project, it has to do with destruction of cultural heritage sites. When you destroy those things you destroy part of cultural identity,which distills down to destroying the identity of a culture and a people.”
Does this series (“Sledgehammer.Bullet.Bomb”) relate to and resonate with what’s happening in the world right now?
“Absolutely,” Gilbert replies. “There’s this systemic kind of destruction in the Middle East, and people dealing with (the willful eradication of) temples or cathedrals or relics.”
It’s hard not to think of what has occurred in Palmyra as well as ancient sites in Mosul, Nineveh, Nimrud, Hatra, and other Syrian or Iraqi cities. Even the Israeli policy of bulldozing the homes of alleged Palestinian terrorists seems to fall into this category.
Still, the question might be lingering: Why the sandbags, the wood frames, and the color pink. What’s up with that?
“I was looking at World War I trench art,” Gilbert explains, “which led me to start looking at pictures from World War II. Something that kept coming up were cathedrals or monuments or frescos: They have these sandbags in front of them, protecting them from bombing. And so it occurred to me that these things that were protecting were actually becoming a new symbol for what was behind them.”
In case you’re skimming this article, the last sentence is worth re-reading. If you’ve got one handy, use a highlighter.
This was how Leonardo da Vinci’s fresco, “The Last Supper,” was protected and survived the bombing of Santa Maria delle Grazie in August, 1943
Gilbert references one of the pieces in the show, a buttress of sorts with sandbags. “I was thinking of a picture like ‘The Last Supper,’ and there’s always sandbags against it.” For Gilbert, the focus is not on Leonardo’s fresco, but rather what’s trying to keep it safe. Or, put mildly, the protector without the protectee.
“I like the idea that these things that are protecting it are the symbol and then we move them off, and then they become their own individual kind of piece.
“And so what I do,” Gilbert continues, “is I take the sandbags and the buttress and I move it to the center of the room with these architectural elements, which has kind of this phony structure to hold it up, but also it becomes like a color-field painting.”
Did your eyes linger over those words “becomes like a color-field painting”?
It certainly seems incongruous, sandbags as they might have been used during warfare, that is, aerial bombardment, to safeguard irreplaceable art or artifacts, with the color pink. But let’s listen in on what James Gilbert has to say.
“I’ve used pink a lot in my work,” he explains. “In a lot of my projects there’s two parts. There’s always the serious part, and then there’s always the part where I try to bring in a sense of humor.” And with regard to “Sledgehammer.Bullet.Bomb,” “because I already have this element of destruction in it, I wanted to bring it back in terms of perception, to bring a more vibrant kind of playful vibe to it, a softness. Pink is a color I’ve often used for that. This one has a little bit of purple in it too, with a different meaning, but the pinks and the purples really bring a softness and a vibrancy to it.”
A Bunch of dum dums tried to Destroy it while I was in Charge of Protecting It 2015
Lest it seem like a purely arbitrary choice, Gilbert then makes one thing clear: “Everything from the materials to the colors is always really relevant to me.” And with those words we are left to our own devices, as to whether the clash of battlefield and playground aesthetics work for or against our appreciation of the finished product.
Each work, however, takes hours, days, perhaps weeks to construct.
“There are hundreds and hundreds of pieces,” Gilbert says, “and each one is handsewn, hand-dyed, filled, and then I have these elaborate wood structures that take an immense amount of time in terms of all these little details. So it’s really a labor intensive process.”
As some of his previous endeavors have shown, Gilbert opts for more rather than less.
“Every so often I review what I’ve done and what I’m trying to communicate in a bigger picture. I’ve noticed that everything is in huge, huge multiples, and lots of layers, and really (involves) a physical process in terms of making the work. I don’t know why I do it; it’s just that I have to see it. And so, when I decide I want to do a project, I always do so many multiples because it plays into this massness of what I’m trying to communicate.”
Well, for one it’s more impressive that way. You can look at one terracotta warrior, ho-hum, or you can gasp at an area the size of a football field that’s packed with hundreds of them.
Gilbert mentions that there are still three more pieces he needs to finish for the show.
One of our dining companions, a fellow named Arnold, leans across the table and says: “Instead of being here, you should be working on those three pieces.”
Gilbert laughs. “Oh, man, I’m exhausted!”
The next morning he was back in the studio.