John Gibson: Jazz

March 2020 - March 2021

Sometime late in 2018, BMAC Director Danny Lichtenfeld approached me with a proposal to redo the outdoor window treatments at the Museum. I found the prospect of working with the windows thrilling. First of all, the building itself is such a remarkable example of early 20th-century industrial architecture and is such a crucial part of Brattleboro’s cityscape. Secondly, I had never worked on such a scale or in such a site-specific and public way before. The sequence of images, their relationship to the building, the color—everything posed an exciting challenge, and I’m grateful for the opportunity. Getting excited about the project, though, was the easy part. The more difficult task was to decide what to do. 

For more than 30 years, I have been making paintings of balls, decorated most often with dots or stripes. These balls are usually stacked into improbable piles or perched precariously on a ledge. Although I have painted them exclusively for so long, it’s not really balls themselves that I find so interesting. I admire their endlessness and mystery, and I love the way a circle sits on the surface of a ball and bends into space. I paint balls because they are the most fundamentally different thing from the flat surface of a painting that I can think of. I like that elegant opposition of forces. Every day, I try to wring a “real” ball out of a flat surface, and every day I can’t quite do it. In the good paintings, there is some residue of that effort, and in the best paintings, there is a lot. In many ways, the subject of these paintings—at least for me—is just that residue: a wish for something that cannot be had, a version of a ball overlaid with desire. 

During the fall of 2019, I began working on the windows of BMAC. Coming up with a plan for the project meant spending time in and around the Museum and studying it from as many viewpoints as possible. The windows themselves make up a significant portion of the building’s imposing facade, so whatever I did was going to have a major impact on the visual effect of the whole site. The color of the stone, the low slouch of the roofline, and even the landscape behind needed to be taken into account. 

Early on, it became clear that my approach was going to require something other than simply reproducing five different paintings in each of the five windows. Using Photoshop mock-ups, I experimented with all kinds of possibilities. Eventually, I began to work with pieces of paintings that might or might not be connected to each other behind the stone walls between the windows, which created an illusion that giant balls were actually inside the Museum, rolling around in the galleries. 

Each image was painted separately, scanned, blown up to scale, and printed on material suitable for the outdoors. Suddenly, the relationship between figure and ground had become more complex. There was still the relationship of the painted ball to the painted background, but now there was also the “real” space of the building, both in relation to the facade and to the pictorial space that had opened up inside. The two “opposing forces” that I had been working on for years (the ball and everything around it) now included a third element: the Museum itself. 

I’d like to thank everyone at the Museum for all of their help in putting this project together, with special thanks to Danny and to Jonathan Gitelson, who skillfully guided the transformation of these five small details into their giant counterparts.

— John Gibson


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