“I’ve been drawing since I could hold a pencil,” says contemporary wildlife artist Justin Gibbens, a 2006 recipient of a Pollock Krasner Foundation Award and a 2007 Artist Trust GAP award. A master draftsman, Gibbens employs watercolor and gouache on archaic-looking oolong tea stained paper to adeptly mix science and science fiction, his formidable skills of representation used to depict creatures that inhabit the most wondrous place of all: the human mind.
Gibbens received a BA from Central Washington University where he concentrated mainly on process-oriented work before discovering the pleasures of observation drawing. He went on to complete a program in scientific illustration at Seattle University in 2004, afterwards working briefly as an illustrator. “I didn’t find it as satisfying as I had hoped,” explained Gibbens, “but it was a great introduction to 17th, 18th and 19th century scientific illustration. I saw in them earnest works full of inaccuracies.” The contrived details he discovered have inspired his current work. “I’m interested in the strangeness of nature,” says Gibbens, “as well as how humans interface with nature.”
In two simultaneously running exhibits in Seattle, “Unnatural History “at G. Gibson Gallery, and “Animal Spell” at Punch, Gibbens created realistically rendered birds and beasts with unusual animal accouterments. In “Unnatural History,” Gibbens presented a series of drawings, (collectively titled Birds of Paradise), copied from John James Audubon’s multi-volume set Birds of America. Gibbens sketched out Audubon’s prints in their entirety before drawing in extra legs or heads and occasionally granting them far-fetched abilities such as fire breathing.
Audubon occasionally placed his taxidermy models into somewhat exaggerated positions in order to achieve more dramatic results. Gibbens used what he has termed these “points of awkwardness,” as a point of departure. The neck of Audubon’s Flamingo descends towards the ground in an inverted angle that mirrors the hyperextension of the bird’s front knee (technically the flamingo’s ankle). Gibbens exaggerates the bird’s apparent elasticity in his own Asp-Necked Flamingo, threading the bird’s neck between its legs like a winter scarf. The artist’s Hammerhead Pelican sprouts two heads that face one another forming a stylized, if somewhat flattened, heart shape, while Fire Breathing Chimney Swifts cover the paper with plumes of trailing smoke.
In “Animal Spell,” Gibbens’ subjects were furred, not feathered, influenced by a recent trip to Bavaria. In a monumental drawing exhibited on the back wall titled Jackalopes Von Regenbögen Land, a pair of jackalopes (mythical animals generally represented as rabbits with antlers) leap towards one another to dramatically lock horns under a scintillating rainbow. Red mushrooms burst forth from the ground on the left while blue fungi erupt on the right. It’s a good example of the way in which Gibbens marries cultural history to contemporary kitsch. His drawing alternately references the leaping stag paintings associated with hunting lodges or ski chalets while the opposing colored flora, and his folkloric fauna, suggest a contemporary clash between the jets and sharks of the underbrush.
Painting isn’t the only way in which Gibbens, a resident of Thorp, in Eastern Washington, has proven his creative mettle. In March of 2006 Gibbens, along with five other artists founded the gallery Punch, creating a visual arts arena for area artists living outside Seattle. The collective, currently boasting twelve member artists, has been the subject of numerous reviews since its inauguration. Gibbens, like the creatures he depicts, is an unusual mélange of adaptation and metamorphosis whose survival skills will come in handy both in and out of the gallery.
“Bird of Paradise III: Asp-necked Flamingo,” 2007
Watercolor, graphite, gouache, oolong on paper, 40″ x 26″
“Animal Spell” (a two person exhibit featuring the work of Justin Gibbens and Amy Ross) was on view from April 3-27, 2008 at Punch Gallery, 119 Prefontaine Place South, Seattle WA 98104 (206) 621-1945 www.punchgallery.org
“Unnatural History” (a two person exhibit featuring the work of Justin Gibbens and Nealy Blau) could be seen from April 3-May 10, 2008 at G. Gibson Gallery, 300 South Washington St., Seattle WA 98104
(206) 587-4033 www.ggibsongallery.com