by Tim Gilmore, 4/26/2015
On the second floor of a 1941 warehouse by the railroad tracks in North Riverside, a series of three-legged foxes makes its way around an enormous steel
trap, while nearby three black dogs simultaneously leap in a circle beside a potted plant, a woman lying on the floor with her arms wrapped around herself, and a man with his shirt pulled over his face, head bowed, arms dangling before him.
This is MetaCusp, the art studios of Liz Gibson and Jeff Whipple.
“At one point, Liz kept saying, ‘We’re on the cusp, we’re on the cusp,’ and finally I said, ‘No, we’re beyond the cusp,’” Jeff says.
So when they moved from Tallahassee to Jacksonville and set up shop in the old carpentry warehouse that triangulates against Bold City Brewery and CoRK, or Corner of Rosselle and King, the long brick warehouse full of art studios, Jeff and Liz called their space MetaCusp.
The creativity of both artists defies boundaries, and both, while mainly visual, are also highly literary.
Though Jeff Whipple is known nationally as a painter, his plays have found their way to the stage in the Tampa Bay and Chicago areas. Even without the plays, his visual art is heavily metaphoric and poetic.
Though Liz Gibson sings and acts and creates costume and two-dimensional art, she thinks of herself primarily as a storyteller.
Liz works with lots of collage, using mixed media, combining more traditional materials with lenticular prints, which create illusions of depth or changes in the printed image depending on where you’re standing.
But she’s best known as a deformance artist, and it was art that enabled her to use the birth defect of her two-fingered right hand as a signature. Even her two-dimensional pieces often involve the image of her handprint. The series Names I Was Called Because of My Deformed Hand includes lenticular prints of her handprint within slightly larger metaphoric images that reflect the insults she heard as a child: Trigger Finger, Captain Hook.
Spread out across the floor of her studio space are large mats, one covered by variously colored differing geometric shapes, another by pieces of collages by students of hers with autism and Cerebral Palsy. Across nearby mats and tables and wires are brightly colored pieces of lenticular prints or beaded costume or geisha and fox wigs.
“Deformance,” though, is a pun on her role as performance artist, which features story, acting, and music for four main characters she’s created. The Three-Legged Fox is based on her childhood struggles with self-perception and the fox she met when she was nine years old.
She grew up, she says, in Pensyl-tucky, that rural western part of Pennsylvania much more Southern in culture than Philly. One day a little boy who lived nearby knocked on her door and told her she had to come see the three-legged fox. The fox had chewed most of its leg free of a hunter’s trap before the boy’s father severed the rest of the leg.
“And there were these boys who were fascinated by the fox, because it was like a freak to them,” she says, “and I felt empathy for this fox. It was a girl fox, and it was her right front foot, and I felt so strongly about the whole experience.”
Other “deformative” characters include the Marquis Sha De, whose name is a salad of that of the infamous French writer, the Marquis de Sade, who wrote tomes of brutal erotica in prison and gave his name to “sadism.” Liz’s powdered-wig persona explores conflicted ideas of female power in a cross between burlesque and Marie Antoinette.
By the time she was a teenager, she says, she had learned to use her deformed hand as a social experiment, while still feeling she carried an unfair burden of proof in having to figure out when to let boys know her hand wasn’t normal.
Occupying that liminal space where she could watch a situation play out either way depended on the fact that her defect was limited to her hand. She could easily hide it. It wasn’t like she was missing legs.
Ben Wa Betty characterizes the “otherness” of adolescence, anxiety-ridden even for the most popular kids, by combining her deformity with the Westernized misrepresentation of the geisha. She uses “Orientalism,” the Western critique of Asian culture as “Oriental,” or “the oriented-against,” or other.”
It’s started to storm this Saturday morning. The transoms high above the solid old wood flooring admit a dim golden light. When Jeff and Liz moved into this space in 2012, they had to clear out 70 years of sawdust and other detritus from the floors of the former cabinetry workspace.
As we walk into their “living room,” a wide-open second-floor space with a seating area and bookshelves beneath the high windows in a far brick wall and aisles of Jeff’s art going back to the early 1980s, when he first showed in Jacksonville, Bob comes to meet me. He’s the gray and white tabby cat whose enormous portrait took up the entrance to Forsyth Street from Laura at the most recent One Spark Festival downtown.
A piece Jeff painted as a 21 year old undergrad uses the colors of a faded mid-century photograph to depict a number of old full-bodied American cars parked outside an Eagle Discount Supermarket. A woman walks alongside a car,
while a man fumbles on elbows and knees on the other side. While the painting reminds me of the urban legends of men attacking women’s ankles from underneath cars at suburban shopping malls at Christmas, this man, scrambling along in his red parka, looks more like he’s trying to find a missing contact lens.
Several of Jeff’s works depict a man and woman obstructing each other’s face in various ways. Sometimes, as in the exterior portrait above the entrance to MetaCusp, the two playfully try to stick their fingers in each others’
eyes. Other images are less playful, some rather ominous. In some, one partner or other is more successful in blocking the other’s eyesight. Sometimes one figure peaks knowingly to the viewer.
As Jeff’s work has evolved, it’s becoming less purely representational and increasingly layered. A stamp of three unparallel bands shows up in paintings from the late 1980s until today.
While this signature seems stripped down from his earlier dreamlike scenarios, he’s always thought in terms of metaphor and pattern.
In fact, he says, one of the best responses to his work came from a wonderfully open-minded woman who confessed to not having any training in art. He suspects that lack of training enabled her to see what he was doing in ways academics might not.
“She told me she’d spent the whole exhibit going from one of my pieces to the next and creating for herself the story that each one told,” Jeff says.
Still, after illustrating picture-perfect dreamlike images, again and again, Jeff felt he needed to layer such uninterpretable representations in particular patterns. A skin began to coat his dreams, a coat began to layer his archetypes.
Increasingly, his own archetype of three bands showed up in myriad contextualizations, sometimes wrapping a man’s head, sometimes proliferated behind a vague figure oblivious to the pattern.
“One line,” Jeff tells me, “is a line. Two is a coincidence. Or at least we’re wired to think so. Three lines we interpret as a pattern.”
So three lines came in to save Jeff Whipple (or to remind him that none of us is saved), since he’d already long drawn metaphors of our little lives lived between two neverending deaths. Each life is thus defined.
At least the three lines rendered between infinities of death shows pattern against the darkness on either side, and thus meaning, and thus….well….everything.
Just as Liz sees herself principally as a storyteller, Jeff says his work has often taken more influence from poets than painters.
Though he doesn’t care for his work being described as “surrealist” or “symbolist,” since both words indicate 20th century art movements whose connotations and agendas he doesn’t want to obstruct reactions to his art, he says his paintings have long been informed by poets like Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot.
You can see a narrative kinship between Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and several of Jeff’s many-paneled works, just as you can see a narrative kinship between Lon Po Po, the Chinese “Red-Riding Hood,” and Liz’s character dramatizations.
Though her costumed “deformative” work might seem to lend itself most to playwriting and drama, Liz’s side-by-side two-dimensional pieces on the wall beside the parakeet cages downstairs depict differences in the life of a zipper.
Both images comprise lenticular prints of Liz’s infamous handprint. The image on the right seems smooth, rhythmical, unvaried, the way, perhaps, we all hope things will always go. The zipper before it, however, indicates an opening. When a zipper breaks, the well-timed order of daily living is disrupted. That disruption might be a small inconvenience, it might be a catastrophe. But who’s got time for either?
Still, the reconnected image on the right shows the handprints in a different order than that in which they began, power has shifted, but life continues.
Even so, the life that continues, without event, is rarely remembered after a decade of living, while the event that disrupts daily rhythm, though troubling at the time, becomes wonderfully definitive after its suturing.
Which makes the logo that appears above her deformative characters doubly powerful (“polysemous”—told in multiple ways and meaning multiple things)—
“Be Brave: Make Your Mark.”
—making your mark means leaving your creative/artistic/intellectual scent—
and are you a crow whose collectivity is called a murder, finely so, if you can justify it artistically, or are you a ladybug whose collectivity is called a loveliness?
—making your mark means repeatedly making the mark of your hand and/or leaving your signature.
The individuality of a fingerprint seems so much lesser, automatic, too easy.
Jeff’s paintings each tell dreams, or stories that aren’t stories, or the inexplicable (dis)orderings of a moment, since wondering what happens before or after the moment is both irrelevant and inevitable.
Since last year Jeff completed a competitively-commissioned 75-foot-long Washington D.C. high school mural, he’s excited to get some MetaCusp space back to himself.
Jeff’s softer-spoken than Liz, though each is equally conceptual and seems well-attuned to the other’s differing creative processes.
Even Liz’s smallest pieces seem perched toward performance, while Jeff’s least publically accessible works sometimes stretch metaphorically across several human-size panels.
Beneath the thunderstorms that batter the old wooden warehouse windows, Jeff’s long narrative series, the epic, Between Deaths: The Rape of Death, spreads across six man-height panels, showing generically happy housewives, from whom mass-produced interchangeable baby dolls circuit past masked
men to a black cape, unveiled by a housewife, into which a masked man falls with random baby dolls, while to his right, a woman pulls off her shirt and pulls down her jeans, and another man floats up-side down to her right.
Every ancient Greek myth of a god who rapes a nymph, her transubstantiation into a tree or waterfall, hiding her forever, seems upended here by railroad racks, or reversed across old Riverside.
The narrative continues across Riverside’s rooflines through the center of the city of Jacksonville, while the rain continues to pound the roof and stories prowl without cease across town.
While Jeff’s bleak vision of a “spasm between infinities” imbues his art with beauty and wonder, Liz asks me, speaking for the tiny moment each of us lives, “Who doesn’t have a birth defect, if you’re honest with yourself?”—We might as well marvel at our small and malformed and lovely place on this one living planet.
When I leave MetaCusp, as the downpour has subsided, my first high-two, which Liz does with all her students, lacks the necessary energy and sound effects. But the second time, I make sure to place the correct two fingers against those of her right hand, then draw my hand back and make the right noises of a spacecraft rocketing off from a fist-bump.