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A Reflexive Self

Chelsea Gibson paints portraits of home. But home for the upstate New York artist is not a static entity; it cannot not be measured in square feet or valued in dollars. Rather, home is a feeling—something experienced—that roots itself in a person’s relationship to space, time, things, and other people. As a gifted cellist who studied at the New England Conservatory of Music, perhaps it is inevitable that Gibson tasks her visual art with an experiential subject matter.

To capture and emit the performative sense of the home, Gibson loads many of her paintings with mise en scene—a smattering of objects in a room that some would call quotidian clutter, but that together speaks volumes outside of the singular moment being painted.

Chelsea Gibson, Sondra’s Kitchen, 2015, 79 x 165.75 inches, Oil on panel, CG-010
Sondra’s Kitchen, 2015

In Sondra’s Kitchen, for example, stacks, piles, heaps, and other slightly less haphazard hanging arrangements occupy the majority of the multi-panel work, while Sondra is relegated to the far right of the composition. She is leaning against the table, not really doing anything—looking out past the viewer as if in a quiet moment of solitary contemplation. Yet the painting is still dynamic on a number of levels: most immediately apparent is the work’s sloping shape and severe panoramic perspective, which together seem to dump the contents of the room into the space of the viewer. But the scene itself also exudes action: The abundance of functional objects builds a narrative where, even in her passive stance, Sondra plays an active role. The central force lies in the kitchen table—or really on its surface, where papers, pens, and folders are strewn. Coupled with the powerful hand (something out of a Thomas Hart Benton), we get the sense that Sondra is an artist, and that she has been at the table engaged in the creative process. Home becomes likened to a canvas; it is a creative space that records in real time and redounds into the future one’s own identity.

detail, Sondra’s Kitchen

home is a feeling—something experienced—that roots itself in a person’s relationship to space, time, things, and other people

But while all of Gibson’s subjects are in some ways defined by and also defining their surroundings, the real potency of the artist’s work resides in her own (seemingly unseen) presence. There is an intimacy in the paintings—a deeply personal and profound attachment to the people, things, and spaces depicted—that takes on an almost Proustian quality in the age of social media.

Chelsea Gibson, Standing In It, 2014, 60 x 48 inches, Oil on Canvas, CG-001
Standing In It, 2014

In Standing In It, for example, Gibson has chosen to depict a serene yet fleeting moment—a woman, who feels like our friend, pausing in a frame of sunlight pouring in through the window. It is an ordinary moment, yet one that is imbued with quiet, contemplative rarity. In this way, the work seems like a poetic reflection on life—on our relationship to our surroundings but ultimately, on our relationship with ourselves.

Gibson seems to approach portraiture in a manner that calls to mind William Carlos Williams’ “no ideas but in things,” a belief that clarity is achieved not by vague considerations of abstract concepts, but by directly addressing that which surrounds us everyday. On the surface, Gibson paints very tangible portraits of people in their homes. But from this stems a deeper, reflexive awareness of the performance of living that defines “home” as a state of harmony—as the alignment of person, place, object, and time.

Chelsea Gibson, Self Portrait, 2011, 48 x 48.25 inches, Oil on Panel, CG-006
Self Portrait, 2011