Stephen Gibb is a Canadian artist who lives and works near Windsor, Canada, where he earned a Bachelor of Fine Art, from the University of Windsor. His artwork weaves an eclectic tapestry of cultural and social influences. At one moment it may make a gut-punch commentary on pop culture, while the next it may explode into playful diorama, probing into the outer perimeters of the human psyche. His work is often categorized as pop surrealism but he prefers to think of it as existential, editorial cartoon realism. “If it has to have a label, my tongue-in-cheek favourite is ‘Bubblegum Surrealism’, just because it sounds pretentious and funny at the same time”, says Gibb. His works are collected and exhibited all over the globe, and has gathered a widening interest, after having created several album covers and merchandise designs for rap star Trippie Redd.
What was it like growing up in Canada?
Cold! HAHA, that is such a myth, at least where I come from. The southernmost point of Canada is where I live, and it has great summers and relatively mild winters compared to a lot of the country. I like Canada. We can laugh at ourselves and can even be the butt of a joke and we usually don’t care. For the most part Canadians are pleasant people. We sit at the top of the globe and observe and analyze what is going on below with equal parts bewilderment and awe.
You now reside in Windsor, Canada. How is life like there?
Windsor is a very industrial city, very dependent on the automotive industry as is our big brother city of Detroit across the river. I feel like there is an “assembly line” mentality that permeates the general behaviour of people here. It’s like “I’ll do my part and pass it on”, and that’s it—that’s the end of my involvement or concern. That may seem a little cold and detached but generally there is a pride in the overall outcome of the projects people are involved in.
Got it.. Windsor borders up to Detroit. How do you think the Canadian culture differs from American culture? Being so close to the US.
Geographically, the area is pretty cool, being surrounded by lakes and rivers. I actually live 30 minutes south of Windsor so I’m a little bit removed from the hubbub of city life.
Growing up with old-time radio and TV (broadcast), there was a lot of cross pollicization with mass media and pop culture. Across the border we exchanged broadcast signals of both forms of media, so we were exposed to a dual set of ideals. Both sides of the border bled into each other and if I travelled north in Ontario (my province) I’d notice how Americanized we were in the south. The difference between Toronto and Windsor was pretty stark, but I think it’s less so now. This is my perspective; I’m sure others would disagree. Where I’m from, we had a clearer window to the US, both to admire and to criticize.
There is a distinguishable difference between cultures, probably more easily detected by outsiders. We do say “that’s so American” quite a bit. The last few years have really thrown a spotlight on the vast differences and divisive issues that abound to our south. But we are joined at the hip and must get along.
When did you start to paint and why?
There’s a John Lee hooker song (Boogie Chillen’) with the lyrics: “I heard papa tell mama to let that boy boogie-woogie, ‘Cause it’s in him and it got to comе out”. I guess my version would be, there is art in me that’s got come out. I have ideas, that somehow seem worth sharing. From an early age it made sense for me to communicate this way. I know when I was very young and didn’t have the vocabulary to properly express myself, I found great joy in the response I’d get from my drawings.
It’s easy to spot a Stephen Gibb painting. What do you think is the reason you chose this specific painting style as your signature, and not something more conventional, like painting people, landscapes or objects etc..?
I don’t want to be a camera. As fascinating as hyper-realist artist are, I don’t want to set something up, photograph it then paint it or replicate what I see in front of me. If ten people in a room paint a photo-realistic version of the same still life, where is the distinction? Where is the individuation? What is the meaning, other than I am a camera? I want what I do to be a raw, naïve outpouring, that isn’t concerned with realism, but more obsessed with an uncanny relation to things that are only “near real” or could never be real. This is a direct path, from my thoughts to the board, and inevitably my personal, goofy style infuses everything without the need to keep referencing material to mimic. What I paint is what I want to paint. I’m not answering to market pressure or a proven practice that fits a client base’s expectations. I could do things in a more painterly fashion to assert more of an artistic process with subject matter, but I am more interested in what I’m painting than how I’m painting it. I almost feel like that is the truest nature of my art — the content. I think if people dug into the paintings, style aside, there is something to discover on another level beyond the visual presentation. What I do may have developed into a signature style, but it is evolving…slowly and reflexively.
You created the album covers “Life’s a Trip” and “Trip at Knight”, for Trippie Redd. How did that collaboration come about?
I was contacted by the creative team, and gladly so.
Creating those album covers made you known outside of the art world. How has that experience been like? And has there been any specific changes?
It is really nice to be appreciated by this crowd. They have embraced me as if I’m one of their own and they seem to like what I do. It’s wonderful to see the creative versions of fan art I get in reference to the album art. What it means is, I get lots of requests for album art and commission pitches. But I can only do so much, so I must be selective to still have time for myself. I wish the art world paid this kind of attention to me!
I have read that Normal Rockwell, Ed Roth, Hieronymus Bosch and Salvador Dali, have all played a part in shaping your painting style, is that true?
Absolutely. Although Rockwell was more of an artist-for-hire, his image set the tone for me. I remember seeing pictures of him sitting at his easel and I thought that’s exactly what an artist is. His ability to tell a story or invoke an underlying message was genius.
Ed Roth and hot rod culture (or Kustom Kulture) was a world of weirdness that any little kid would be enthralled with. Customized cars and the goofy, hyper-exaggerated cartoons that went with that whole movement in the early 60s, like Rat Fink, were a big inspiration.
Bosch just blew my mind. The archaic, dislodged symbolism and bizarre other worldliness was a pure dopamine rush of confounded wonder when I discovered his work. His sense of mystery and uncanny tone are something I futilely strive for. I promise, I’ll keep trying.
Dali was like the cool uncle, who allowed you to misbehave and made it OK for you to goof off when everyone else expected more decorum and subdued behaviour from you. It’s like when I discovered him, I was suddenly free to just go with my whims. Reality could be upended and follow its own nonsensical rules. Logic and physics are just concepts to be molded like soft clay or thrown out the window.
What is your opinion on the European art scene?
Everyone here in North America assumes the European attitude towards art is much more open and enlightened. The way we value art here tends to be more concerned with monetary worth and issues of commerce, which often depends on an arbitrary or engineered attribution of merit. Somehow, we’re all impressed by the dollar value of art.
I think European values are more in line with what I value in art—the inherent qualities of skill of the artist, the aesthetic nature of the piece, an engaging composition, a meaningful message, and a potent visual impact—all done in combination to exert the most memorable impression. It is bizarre how we fetishize certain art and artists and marginalize others who should be exalted.
As far as a “European scene” goes, sadly I have little to go off. I think North America is so self-absorbed and narcissistic, we just keep feeding our culture back onto itself, like we’re the only ones who matter, so that’s all I know. I just googled “European pop surrealism” and was surprised to see my artwork popping up. I know surrealism persists in eastern Europe and a lot of what I recall is very beautiful, figurative, photo-based fantasy stuff. Now you’ve made me curious to do some research and exploration.
I’m fascinated by certain Japanese sub-genres of art, because they are so creative and strange, yet barely get beyond their borders.
Now Stephen.. I have to ask, your psychedelic artwork. Have you ever experimented with drugs?
People ask me this all the time and the simple, boring answer is, no. I’ve just conditioned my mind to think the way it does and to be tuned to whatever inspires me. I really do like psychedelic art, but my only addiction is inspiration.
What is your favorite cartoon character and why?
SpongeBob SquarePants. I love how he navigates his bizarre world in a perpetual state of optimism, yet he can also be an existential character, confronted with all kinds of life’s problems and emotions. His humour is multi-layered and there are so many archetypal characters around him that his universe is almost allegorical.