Tucked within a second floor studio, Baltimore based artist Sam Gibbons (HF Vol. 9 cover artist) creates subversive tangles of cartoons, illuminated by a rich mastery of color. Blending the innocence and immortality of children’s cartoons with unsettling references to the Manson murders, the controlled shape of each piece suggests a nostalgic labyrinth of experience. Recently we had a chance to stop by Sam’s studio to preview the artwork and ask some questions as he worked toward his December 10th opening of ‘ Directed by Kilroy’ at NYC’s Jonathan LeVine Gallery. View more studio images and read the full interview below.
How does creating art in Manhattan where you got your MFA at Hunter differ from working in Baltimore ? What was it like to grow up in Ohio and wind up studying art in Manhattan ?
There was definitely an adjustment period when I moved from Ohio to New York. I think that it is a pilgrimage that a lot of people in our field take though. This made it easier to find like-minded people to be around which made the transition a lot smoother. One huge difference for me was the sheer amount of art that I was exposed to in NYC compared to anywhere else. There were so many new and exciting exhibitions, bands, and different forms of culture that were always right around the corner. It’s a place where you can see a Philip Guston retrospective, a Shepard Fairey mural, and the Walkmen perform all in one evening. My Hunter experience was influential as well. It gave me a chance to evolve along with some really great artists. I think that developing as an artist in a place with so much stimuli surrounding you such as New York can’t help but inform your work along the way.My time in New York helped me solidify the core ideas that I have as an artist but I feel that my time in Baltimore has allowed me to keep developing. I’ve been working now in Baltimore for the past six years. In some ways it is similar to working in both New York as well as Ohio. The pace of life here is somewhere in between. It’s a metropolitan area with great art and culture but it’s also a place where you can actually afford a house and have a car.
How do the objects around you inspire you? As a drummer with his drum kit in his studio, do you take breaks & play to work out any painterly frustrations? Do you feel your music and your visual art are linked in any way?
Sometimes I feel like my studio is like a kids room. I’ve got old comics, toys, records, and a drum set. I always keep my collection of comics and cartoon character toys handy for quick reference. My records and drum set are there for a good distraction. Sometimes sitting down and fooling around on my kit does help me clear my mind if working gets too monotonous. Breaks like that can really help, especially if I am working on a detailed symmetrical painting.
I’ve always kept my music and painting separate but not necessarily on purpose. I guess I never really made a deliberate effort to merge the two. My art has been influenced by other people’s music though. My interest in the Beatles has informed a couple of pieces in the upcoming show. In particular, the painting Helter Skelter is based on the idea that songs from their White Album had an obscure influence on the Charles Manson murders.
How much does color choice play a role in your work? Do you have any color inspirations?
I think color plays a pretty big role in the work. It’s definitely something that I spend a considerable amount of time figuring out when creating a piece. When I first starting working with cartoons a lot of my inspiration came from the old comic books I had from when I was growing up. Most of these comics had long been yellowed and faded with age. Earlier on in my painting, I was really drawn to these faded colors as they matched well with the old style cartoon characters that I was using. Since then my color choices have expanded. Now, I’ve combined that earlier faded palette with brighter more vibrant colors but also sepia and black and white tones. I guess this current palette could be seen as a mix of color from all the ages of cartooning. I think this is appropriate because all of these have had an influence on me. From earlier black and white cartoons through modern day.
Can you talk a bit about your surface choice, specifically the process of hand cutting the wood?
When I first starting working on irregularly shaped surfaces, I wanted something to paint on that had some thickness and heft to it. This led me to use wood panels and MDF board. For me, cutting the panels out by hand was really the only process available to me at the time and I think I just got used to it over the years. Some of the panels are more intricately cut than others but most take about a day or two to cut and prepare for painting. All the compositions are worked out on paper before I start a piece. I transfer the outline of the drawing to the panel and then cut it out. After everything is prepped and sanded the smoothness of the panel allows me to paint flatly and makes it easier for line work.
Can you describe what a typical ‘workday’ for you is like?
I try to treat a typical workday like a nine to five job. I start painting in the morning and work all day until its dark outside. Whenever I have a big deadline, like this show, I will often times work until later at night. The drawing and the prepping of each panel can take up to about a week or so to do. The actual painting of the piece can take anywhere from two weeks to a month depending on the size.
There seems to be a sense of controlled chaos in your work as the characters and creatures seem to tangle in impossible ways to render, and yet there is this balance in the mirror image effect of the work. How does working with this compositional style effect your technique? It seems like you must have to go into a sort of meditative/ trance state when working these out.
There is definitely a different feel when working on the symmetrical paintings compared to the asymmetrical. The mirroring of the sides puts all that chaos into a structure and the painting almost becomes about shape and pattern rather than content. The actual painting of them is also more structured. It is a one to one ratio– painting each side identical to the other. I have actually done less of these than in past shows but the process can still take its toll mentally after working on such small details for hours on end. At the same time though, I do enjoy how it can be meditative in a way. It’s definitely not something that can be rushed so I think you have to find enjoyment in the process or you’d fry your brain after a while.
Despite the colorful, nearly psychedelic quality of your work and the cartoons woven throughout, there appears to be a kind of darkness, a pulling apart of the bodies of some of these figures, a revealing of bones and blood. Can you talk about this juxtaposition?
When I first started working with cartoons I was interested in the idea of subverting their inherent innocence. By incorporating them in scenes with overt themes of violence or sexuality this innocence becomes compromised. I think the juxtaposition of the two gives a feel of uneasiness to the work. The darker aspects undermine the colorful cartooniness.I think aspects of our culture as well as personal experience influence this darker side of the work. For instance, dealing with the death of someone very close to me a few years ago has left a lingering presence of signs of mortality in the work. Also, while creating this current body of work I became intrigued by the events involved in the Manson murders. A number of the pieces make reference to the grizzly events carried out by him and his followers.
Can you reveal any insight into your choice of title, ‘Directed by Kilroy’ ?
I think about the title in a couple of ways as relating to this exhibition. In the 1947 cartoon “It’s a Grand Old Nag” directed by Bob Clampett, he took his screen credit under the name Kilroy. In this way the title is in homage to him and early cartoonists. The other way I think of the title is in reference to the Manson murders. Charles Manson “directed” his followers to go out and kill. In other words “directed by someone who is kill-happy.”In the paintings in this exhibition there are a few references to the Manson murders as well as early cartoonists such as Clampett and Tex Avery. I guess these would be considered two interests of mine — the darker more bizarre side of humanity as well as an interest in cartoons and its pioneers.
What do you consider to be the true heart of your work?
I think it’s a love of cartoons. When I was younger, I wanted to be a comic book artist or an animator. This would later develop into an interest in the possibilities of using cartoons in fine art. Throughout my life though, I’ve always had this preoccupation. My style of painting has changed and evolved over the years but it seems like it has always dealt with the cartoon form in some capacity.