‘Stop littering’, the artist said to a former date, as he threw a candy wrapper on the floor. The words stuck in her head, bouncing back and forth – something said in passing becoming representative of their differences. The word ‘litter’ now headlines a large canvas, wrapped in muslin and paint, in lipstick-pink capitals with contrasting shadows. Below the lettering, a pair of sad-looking blue eyes with elongated lashes stare at the viewer; a yellow heart, pierced by a sword, occupies the centre. Stickers, flyers and ‘XOs’ punctuate the surface; half-finished sentences are painted in a stereotypically ‘girly’ style.
The painting, Litter (2017), is one of nine recent works included in American artist Alicia Gibson’s first solo exhibition in Europe, ‘Friend from Foe’. For Gibson, painting is a personal process, a way of coming to terms with particular events or relationships that play on her mind. She presents these concerns to the viewer as intertextual bricolages, in which words and phrases (‘geometric abstraction’; ‘gut check’) are juxtaposed with doodles, symbols and memories (a plastic flower, maybe, or a price tag), and asks us to take the references wherever we want them to go. While highly personal, the works resonate with anyone who remembers their adolescence: a time when emotions were heightened and interchangeable.
Never Trust a Junkie (2016) is a somewhat anti-humanitarian piece of advice, popular among Conservatives, that graces one work. In the context of the show, it is a paired down painting of oil and spray paint on canvas, paraphrasing a scene from the cult punk movie Sid and Nancy (1988), in which Nancy has recently had her purse stolen. Here, such clichés become puns, something to laugh at.
The Personal Is Political (2017) takes its title from the rallying cry of second-wave feminism. The painting sets names and events from political history (‘Watergate’, ‘Oswald’), alongside the Zodiac Killer’s symbol (rendered in the Trivial Pursuit colour-scheme), and statements including ‘no way diet’ and ‘Instagram thinks’. Perhaps this is a comment on a mediated reality, in which subjective news clippings and social media feeds direct our understanding of the world.
The idea that the personal harnesses political agency is a useful one to keep in mind while thinking around Gibson’s work. There is a raw sense of honesty in these paintings: emotions and thoughts are unfiltered, as if the artist were a vulnerable teenager. Her work is representative of adolescence, a stage of life that, according to a recent interview, the 37-year-old has never truly left. Recurring elements include: ‘Alicia Gibson’, written repeatedly as if on a schoolbook; an overindulgence in sickly pinks and yellows; and the patterns pupils make in their composition books when bored.
While seemingly haphazard, these paintings are based on pre-existing drawings, and in spite of their thick levels of oil paint and collaged fabric, they maintain a sense of being scribbles on paper – as if jotted down ‘in the moment’. Thus, to encounter Gibson’s work is to study the lost Filofax or personal diary of a schoolchild, and attempt to decode its emotional compositions and cryptic wording. That is, it would be, were it not for certain details that don’t fully resonate with a 12-year-old girl in South Carolina c.1992 and could also apply to a New York-based artist working today – ‘East Hamptons’, written on a diary page collaged onto Wet Spot (2017).
In positioning this stereotypically feminine brand of adolescent doodling within the contemporary painterly context, Gibson addresses the patriarchal structures that the medium has inherited from art history. Furthermore, this show evidences how ‘common’ subject matter can carry as great an emotional weight and sense of direct relatability – a sort of intellectual triumph for the clichéd figure of the teenage girl.
Main image: Alicia Gibson, Sidesaddle (detail), 2016, oil and spray paint on canvas, 25 x 56 cm. Courtesy: the artist and LOYAL, Stockholm, Sweden; photograph: Fredrik Andersson Andersson