“A Retelling” History Painting in the 21st Century: In Conversation with Mark Thomas Gibson

Mark Thomas Gibson’s personal lens on American culture stems from his multifaceted viewpoint as an artist—as a black male, a professor, and an American history buff. These myriad and often colliding perspectives fuel his exploration of contemporary culture through languages of drawing, painting, print, and sculpture revealing a vision of a satirical, dystopian America where every viewer is implicated as a potential character within the story.

We spoke with him on the occasion of the culmination of his solo exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, “A Retelling”, which, “excavates facts, fiction, and the things in between that define and complicate our understanding of American history and humanity.”

I really loved your recent exhibition at MOCAD, “A Retelling”, especially the ways in which the work sometimes uses a comedic tone to deal with serious subject matters such as identity and power relations in America. How did this comedic approach enter your practice and what do you like about using such an approach?

Thank you for asking this question I think it actually gets pretty close to how I have been thinking about my art practice in general.
 When you go to art school you are offered a lot of techniques and histories but in the end you are who you are. The humorous aspect of my work comes from me, it is not something you can fake.
What that means is that I can use specific trope, events, and characterizations to express my perspective. Sometimes there is irony, other times there is sincerity but it is me who makes the decision about how I use these tools when I am trying to communicate my perspective about the world. Working within satire doesn’t mean you are absolved completely from what you say. But I believe it is also asking for people to consider the perspective that may not be their own.

Your practice deals a lot with art as a vehicle for telling histories—”in its ability to reinterpret history through repetition, imagery, and narrative language, Art has the power to remake history”— how did this role of art come to interest you?

During the second half of the Obama administration there was a lot of conservation about the idea of revisionism in American history. This act was happening through many channels, one would be the organization in Texas that created the curriculum in history textbooks that refers to slavery as a necessary evil or makes references to Civil War lost cause mythology.
All this conversation was occuring when I was in graduate school and I had begun to really bring my own personal interests in American history and the contradictions and the retelling of American history into my work. Once I started to do that I really started to understand the difference between restating a fact to illuminate a truth vs revising history to obscure the truth.  So when I am working I am probably less of a revisionist and am much more interested in pulling things apart and reconfiguring them in a way in which aspects of an event that I think are significant are highlighted.

Much of your work also deals with the ways in which both the news media and culture shape our understanding of reality. We live in a
historical moment in which news media feels perhaps more subjective than ever (“alternative facts”). While journalism and news are often framed as objective forms of narration, and cultural work such as painting or storytelling are framed as subjective, the two can often overlap and blur the distinction between objectivity and subjectivity. Could you talk a little bit about what role you think art (and culture more broadly) can play in this current moment in terms of their relationship to news media?

I think that the way in which news media operates and many forms of media consumption operate are to elicit a very specific response, which in turn makes us consume more. Artists in this period of time have to contend with the idea that what they are producing are consumable objects. This perspective can create a conflict because what we make in general no one has asked us to produce. So we look at methods and modes such as Instagram and other forms of communication to emulate to help us make our art into more consumable media. This cycle tends to slingshot us away from what our original intentions were when we first set upon making art. Not everyone desires to be a Kardashian artist. Not everyone wants their work to be seen through a flattened lens, but when the perspective of how we see ourselves has been so greatly narrowed it is inevitable that we start to hold a pinhole perspective on what art can do, who is it for, why we produce it and that much like Coca-Cola, it must always stay the same.
Not every artist is a producer of political media. We need to be more excited about the aberration or the glitch of humans who just don’t give a shit. When I say that I don’t mean to say that those individuals are not aware, on the contrary they may be hyper aware. It’s just that these individuals have chosen to not engage in the system at the systems’ level. I believe it is still relevant to consider tools of subversion rather than acts of capitulation.

The question of separating art from the artist seems as divisive as ever at this current moment, as well as the question of artistic autonomy in relation to politics–“is art inherently political?”/”is it possible for art to be apolitical?”– do you believe there are social and political responsibilities to artistic production and if so how would you define them?

I believe art is political, but that is also my perspective. I see things in the world from a political position, but I also hold a position that my perspective on reality is not the only perspective on reality. I attempt to be willing to know that the perspective that I hold can be wrong.
Everyone has to take responsibility for their own actions, I am not the sheriff of art town. I don’t believe in purity tests as to whether or not someone is being a good participant in our reality when it comes to the production of art objects in general. There are moments where an individual’s politics can operate in opposition to my politic, which then in turn may bring them into conflict with the nature of the work that they have made. But in the end this being an art object, I tend to think it is an opportunity to consider their perspective but it does not mean that I have to accept it.

Which other artists working today are you most excited about?

Mario Moore.

***The introductory biography given was taken directly from the “about” section on the artist’s website.

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