Jonathan Gibbs’s first solo London show was a tour-de-force performance in the ordinarily sketchy and undemonstrative materials of charcoal, pencil, three or four earthen-coloured pastels, and an occasional veil-thin acrylic wash. To provocatively deploy such provisional materials as these — and in a way permitting the artist to rope together several mainstream but discrepant concerns of modern abstract art and to strike from their union a vibrant, even jazzy, mix — is no mean feat. These 20-odd new works adeptly enlist compositional techniques associated with both Constructivist and post-war British abstract art. They also, however, go on to describe a kind of sepulchrally illuminated and chimerical garden of abstract incident, conceived — one feels — by a sensibility peculiarly attuned to the nuanced light of endlessly overcast scapes and comfortable
only with the most controlled, or rarefied, recouching of a latent expressionist impulse.
Gibbs’s drawings, with their stressful black or evanescent white scaffolds of intersecting rods,
lines and bars, resemble Ljubov Popova’s untitled gouaches of 1914-16. And, like her Constructivist experiments, they project conceptual spaces of seemingly limitless depth and lateral extension. Gibbs, however, has taken the aseptic, mathematical vacuum generated by the Russian’s exquisitely reasoned superimposition of lines and simple geometric forms and rendered it, if not quite earthly, then at least subject to vapory drifts, misty translucencies and a diffuse illusory light — all metaphorical both of a moment and a mood. He has, tellingly, titled most of his drawings after times of the year or periods of the day.
For some works, the artist’s somber pastels have been rubbed on to the paper’s surface to make mottled grounds that allow visual penetration while continuing to hold their own plane.
Or, incorporated into a number of his drawings, are »negative« spaces of the paper’s original
white — slender gaps at which Gibbs’s pencil has stopped short — that seem to float, confusedly, like underwater reflections, at an immense depth. Or trim and apparently intact little triangles and rectangles of banded color disclose in the interstices of their stripes a tenuous region at much further remove. The provisional nature of Gibbs’s medium makes possible an infixing and ghostly dematerialization of his surfaces, shapes and lines; and the truly unfathomable space these elements conjure up becomes a function not only of a considered formal arrangement but of brooding light and shadow as well.
Gibbs has developed an idiosyncratic, but remarkably flexible vocabulary of abstract compositional terms, all of them — but for festive, almost tongue-in-cheek flocks of small circular smudge-marks — basically linear. There are his smart ocher or brick-red »flags« built with short bold stripes; his weird white rods and spindle shapes that, at times puddling, assume vaguely organic outlines and that, being »negative« images, often appear seared like fossil imprints into the lapidary dark of their soft charcoal or pastel surroundings. A characteristic variety of stolid, plinth-like bar seems to have been appropriated from the formal lexicon of minimalist sculpture and likewise wields a directorial power over a pictorially implied gravity; and up-tilted, springing semicircles introduce a sensation of trajectory. For all these linear elements, Gibbs has borrowed as much from contemporary British abstract sculpture — with its reliance upon an architectural logic and its own vocabulary of essentially two-dimensional constituent shapes — as from Constructivist drawing.
In any one of Gibbs’s drawings, a number of these linear elements recur according to an often seemingly haphazard but always liltingly rhythmic internal system. In their repetition across the plane of the paper, they may be treated to minute but arresting permutations in shape and shifts
in orientation. Suspended, however, within the smoky light-chased arenas of Gibbs’s charcoal grounds, these elements not only dissolve into insubstantiality, but seem the elusive and bewilderingly multiple images of a shadow play or of optical refraction. In the artist’s two glacially austere Winter Drawings (composite works of 24 separate sheets of paper, each sheet carrying its own study of winter-stripped tree form), this play with an illusory plural vision takes a literal turn. The slits between the drawings’ component sheets demarcate a complex set of relate but distinct, images; yet the fractioning of the visual field is held in check by strong diagonal lines that magisterially cross-brace each work.
Gibbs’s sectioning of the drawing’s field becomes a felicitous, double-edged technique enabling him to introduce into several works a haunting naturalist imagery — irregular organic forms redolent of extinction and loss — without ever belying his clear-headed Constructivist thrust. And where, in the »open,« or unsectioned, drawings, the implied space is volumetric and vast, in most of Gibbs’s subdivided works this space has been collapsed to the plane of the paper’s surface, and his fluent linear forms constrained into discrete, seemingly archaic pictorial devices. Gottlieb’s paintings automatically spring to mind, yet Gibbs’s color sense and his penchant for abstract ellipses here make what, for the American expressionists, had been an excursion into the volatile backwaters of the psyche into a kind of poised and dispassionate archeological disquisition. The ancient colors used to score Gibbs’s dusky grounds — oxide reds, charred siennas, dried-blood maroons, mustard yellows — are those at once of prehistoric cave painting and of architectural materials, and thus mediate, by allusion, between a primitivist urgency and the artist’s extremely sophisticated compositional sense. Meanwhile, his drawings’ linear networks, displaying both the contrapuntal tensions of music and the cohesive orderliness of the surveyor’s lines, confirm Gibbs’s debt not only to the Pictograph grid but to the lively systemization of landscape as practiced by de Stijl.
In these works, the formalist terms and mechanisms of several strains of 20th Century abstraction are guardedly recast as abbreviations for a strangely primeval and landscape-dominated interior world. Gibbs’s drawings thus unexpectedly fall with a tradition of English romanticism, to admit indirectly — i.e., through distilled and re-ordered attributes of nature — of a most pensive expressionism.
by Prudence Carlson