Updated: Oct 9, 2019
"[The work is inspired by] the idea that each of us is flawed, but at the same time wanting to present ourselves to the world and be looked at and acknowledged, despite our flawed and damaged humanness. There is beauty in strangeness. And in transformation."
Mary Gibney's Peculiarities: gallery tour, review, and artist interview by Lillian Pettigrew
Entering the gallery, I am greeted by an explosion of color, the tangible evidence of Mary Gibney’s prolificness. Canvases in violet and turquoise and yellow hang on the walls, depicting skeletons and naked ladies in cages or with boxing gloves. But what is really special is the corner where Gibney has set up her desk. Here, the walls are covered in dozens of collages, vintage mugshots, family photos, and delightfully odd sketches and watercolors.
Each piece is bursting with imaginative detail-- my eye catches the three headed lady made of sheet music atop an old accounting workbook, an eerie negative of a woman at a farm, a man’s mugshots accompanied by Gibney’s portrait of him. The larger pieces come from an old book Gibney found entitled “Magic Patents,” that contained a listing of stage illusions from the 1880s to 1920s, with no images or further descriptions. Gibney took titles like “Four Girl Vanish” and “Novelty Wig” and created dreamy interpretations that demand a closer look.
While Gibney’s work has dealt with mugshots and sideshow freaks before, this exhibition is more about introspection, about “contemplating what impels us to want to look at the strangeness of others, to be drawn to the spectacle, as well as to be that strange thing that wants to be seen.” The constantly-evolving, expansive nature of the residency lends itself to internal exploration, and Gibney describes finding incredible freedom from her inner judgment through the large-scale, unfinished format. But allowing workspace to become exhibition space, putting so much self into so many detailed works that absolutely demand closer examination-- this also requires a remarkable degree of vulnerability and openness to external judgment.
When looking at Gibney’s work, we are made to feel like the voyeur, because as much as we might pretend otherwise, it is a disconcerting experience to be presented with the strange, the vulnerable, the other. But there is an empathy, a curiosity with which we must view Gibney’s work, because we recognize ourselves in the subjects too. Despite the gaudy vaudeville trappings, her art is about “stripping away the layers,” and revealing the damaged, changing human beneath. My gaze returns again to the mugshots of the young man, and beside them, the sketch of his face, chin lifted, eyes open and unguarded. There is a home, a comfort, to be found within the garish colors and freakshow figures. I think he’s inviting me in.