Jeffrey Gibson, Mushroom Head, 2009; found and purchased objects, steel, mannequin, human hair (from China), plaster, oil, spray paint; approximately 8 x 2 ˝ x 2 ˝ feet
This is Not a Plastic Bag, 2009; found and purchased objects, steel, mannequin, plaster, oil, spray paint; approximately 8 x 7 x 3 feet; courtesy the artist and Sala Diaz
Totemism, the study of totemic forms, dates back to the nineteenth century. At that time, the field was dominated by anthropologists seeking a clear delineation between so-called primitive and civilized man. It was not until after Sigmund Freud published Totem and Taboo, which used spurious theories of totemism to support his own sexual theories, that totemism as a singular, primitive practice was rejected by anthropologists. By this time, the Surrealists had already latched onto the idea of primitive art as a unique gateway into the id, and before long, the symbolic prowess of the mythical primitive man became an obsession of the avant-garde. What began as a demonstration of modern man’s moral and spiritual superiority became an idealization of the primitive, which continues to this day.
Jeffrey Gibson flew to San Antonio five days before his opening at Sala Diaz, having previously located two androgynous, headless mannequins and a local assistant via Craigslist. His assistant helped Gibson track down various dollar stores in San Antonio, where the artist purchased cheap, disposable products to build his Totems, including a wig, plastic flowers, toys, boots, planters and spray paint. The result: two humanoid forms and one twelve-foot totemic pole embellished with scrawls of bright spray paint that walk a line between abstract expressionism and psychedelia. The human figures effortlessly convey enough personality to fill the separate rooms they inhabit. The large totem pole, built of fiberglass and plastic planters, stands in front of the gallery like a beacon for lost suburbanites trying to locate San Antonio’s subterranean gallery scene.
Gibson’s sculptures, which could easily be depictions of candy-flipping rave kids with colored lights streaming over their bodies, connect primitivism to contemporary counterculture while suggesting that an abstract conception of primitive humanity has itself become a kind of totem. Just as some societies identify with animals or plants as a way of metaphorically drawing social boundaries, some subcultures identify with indigenous cultures as a way of resisting the mainstream ideologies of their own societies. Cleverly, Gibson included a red mushroom cap in one sculpture and a Batman mask in another, suggesting that the use of plants and animals in the process of identity formation hasn’t really gone anywhere.
The exploitation justified by early anthropological theories hasn’t disappeared either. Gibson’s dollar-store materials “are often plastic and produced in non-Western countries where labor is cheap in comparison to the United States,” according to the press release for the exhibition. Although identities may still be formed with the help of symbols—plants, animals, even caricatured humans—these symbols flow from a system of mass production that exploits workers abroad to make a quick buck from patrons at home. In Totems, Gibson uses the stereotyping of his own people (he is a member of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians) as a way of exploring the use of metaphor in identity formation, cultural critique and consumerism without forfeiting lyricism or indulging in self-righteousness (apart, that is, from his press release).
Ben Judson is a writer and poet based in San Antonio.