DALLAS — A singular face appears across James Gilbert’s exhibition I Don’t Know, You Don’t Know, They Don’t Know at Erin Cluley Gallery. Ovular and narrow with deep-set eyes and sealed lips, the face is the central subject of colorful drawings on paper and painted wood sculptures. Its blank expression and cartoonish, wing-like ears give off a sense of awkward solemnity, while the face’s baldness and generic features evade the specificity of a certain race, gender, or age. Who is this figure, and why is it so pervasive in Gilbert’s work?
The answer remains open-ended, though the question has been asked countless times. Gilbert’s large drawings feature the face in tightly-packed groupings, while his smaller works — there are more than 130 of them on one wall of the gallery — show it in individual portraits. Each time, layers of extra eyes, lips, and ears float across the faces, suggesting crowded multiplicity and movement. In addition, lively dashes, squiggles, and other exploratory shapes float and bounce around each head like loose energy fields.
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Giacometti’s drawn portraits come to mind when viewing Gilbert’s swirling, frenetic lines, though the Los Angeles-based artist’s rainbow colors and leaping marks feel decidedly lighter and more joyful than his predecessor’s. There does seem to be a desire on Gilbert’s part to move into more complex conceptual territory, but heavy titles like “History and Tradition I” (2022) and “The Circumstances” (2022) don’t match the obvious fun he must be having while making these splashy, vibrant works.
Gilbert’s wood sculptures have a slower, more solid feel to them. The same face from the drawings reappears as a three-dimensional carved head, and again, repetition reigns. In “My Sense of Humor is Complicated by My Personality” (2019), ten heads painted white sprout from a wooden school desk like mushrooms. And in the poetically-titled “Evening Would Bring its Familiar Strangeness” (2022), two more white heads mirror each other, joined at the neck. Mostly monochrome with soft, hand-chiseled surfaces, these works are notably quieter than the drawings. But they’re also more dynamic, with a greater potential for narrative and even comedy.
For example, close inspection of “The Thing You are Looking For is the Thing You Weren’t Looking For” (2021) — a sculpture also carved and painted in the artist’s signature white — reveals a disjointed nose and curled ear poking unexpectedly through a lopsided block on legs. Like much of Gilbert’s sculpture, the piece’s impact falls between a comedic wink and a plea for empathy. Something similar occurs in the grandly-titled “The Great Migration and Age of Exploration” (2019), where two stone-faced, charcoal-colored carved heads are capped or perhaps pushed down by a clunky Pepto Bismol-colored hand.
The same uncomfortable shade of pink coats the sexless pair of legs and feet in “Kneel” (2020), which bow blindly without the distinction of a torso or head. In all of these works, Gilbert makes no attempt to hide the joints and cracks in his wood. There’s a subtle sense of futility implied by this lack of polish, but also a bid for connection: Gilbert’s rough edges remind viewers to consider the maker, the time he’s spent, and the reasons he works the way he does. As with the ubiquitous, undefined face, questions are raised. But as the exhibition’s title suggests, a collective not knowing may be the answer.
I Don’t Know, You Don’t Know, They Don’t Know continues at Erin Cluley Gallery (150 Manufacturing St #210, Dallas, Texas 75207) through November 12. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.