Mark Thomas Gibson: WHIRLYGIG!
On ViewSikkema Jenkins
February 3–March 11, 2023
A solid band of Patriot blue stretches across the back gallery of Sikkema Jenkins, creating a powerful backdrop for Mark Thomas Gibson’s large, thinly framed drawings and paintings. In Gibson’s exhibition WHIRLYGIG!, bad things are off the rails. Cartoonish images of marching boots, steampipes, hooded masks and ominous hands show us a world of non-stop conflict, frozen in a state of perpetual alarm.
All A Go (Steampipes and Hands) (2022) depicts a dense scaffold of toppling steampipes, each eyeless with a pronounced nose and open mouth belching plumes of gas. The pipes seem to be self-destructing, oozing sludge and rust. Poking out between the pipes are a series of hands performing various gestures; one holds an open book, another grips a rope, another is whipped back in agony, another calmly turns a valve.
Elsewhere, American Sing A Long (2022) provides an abbreviated version of this panicked scene. Three screaming pipes line up in a row like soldiers. The severely cropped composition creates a feeling of endlessness, as if there are millions of roaring pipes extending beyond the frame, or scrolling by on a loop. Their razor-sharp frowning mouths open to reveal an embedded brick pattern the color of embers and char. In the brightest area of each pipe, the surface does not shine as if reflective metal but instead appears absorbent like plaster, lending an unexpected fragility to these screaming bars.
On the way out of the gallery, White Trip Wire (2022) did precisely what its title suggests: snagged my attention and made me do a double take. I first read the picture as boot laces being tied tight, an image of organization, security, and power. But then I noticed that the white laces were in fact a trip wire being triggered. This misreading revealed a poignant message of false confidence: a moment of readiness can easily turn into one of entrapment. With the word “trip” uppermost in my mind, I turned to look at The Show Goes On (2022), which frames a small stage with red curtains drawn. A broom sweeps aside discarded objects: a paper-thin Ku Klux Klan hood, a wooden sword, and what resembles a sign spelling the word TRUMP. The sign is folded at its center so it appears to read “TRIP,” an appealing slippage that also evokes the two meanings of the word itself—one person’s pleasure can be another’s pain. In the end, however, the signs of violence depicted are shown here as flimsy and hollow, and as a wheel and foot, perhaps of a Civil War-era soldier, pass over the scene, they’re all swept off stage, making way for the next performance.
Perhaps it’s true with art that things are more powerful and more terrifying when left unsaid. The mere inference, the shadow, is enough to conjure strong emotions for the mindful. Gibson understands this, bringing us right up to this moment of revelation, but not a step closer. The remarkable aspect of his work is how fully this moment of tension is sustained, in perpetuity. In place of any concrete explanation, a steampipe shrieks, a trip wire is set off, and a white hood is left behind.