John Gibbons: Portraits

Past display archive
12 September 2009 - 9 May 2010

Room 32 (Balcony)


Your Story/ White Blackbird, 2008 – 09  - © John Gibbons

Your Story/ White Blackbird, 2008 – 09
© John Gibbons

During a career that now extends for over thirty years, John Gibbons (b.1949) has secured a reputation as one of Britain's leading sculptors.  Like 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. Indeed, although apparently abstract, his sculpture has always been infused with references to a human presence.

This display focuses on Gibbons's unconventional engagement with portraiture. Covering the period from 1981 to the present, it brings together five sculptures that evoke particular individuals.  Rather than describing their subjects' external appearance, the sculptures work expressively and by imaginative association.  As each developed, their structure and character became linked with the artist's memories of family members and friends.  A connecting theme is the way each sculpture acts as a kind of ‘container' for experience, accommodating specific personal and intimate characteristics.  As such, they engage with an individual's inner life, that mysterious domain which Gibbons perceives as the essence of portraiture.

Darragh's Place 1981- 4

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 modelling 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

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

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

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

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.