At The Copper Fox
WORDS Karen Parr-Moody
With a diluted solution of Elmer’s glue, artist Sloane Bibb pastes a rootin’ tootin’ cowboy from a bygone era’s catalog onto a piece of plywood. He then carefully traces the lad’s splayed fingers, poised in a decades-old wave, with the thin drill bit of a scroll saw, gingerly excising each tiny finger from the surrounding wood. The drill bit pokes into the wood swiftly, like a chicken pecking the earth in a quest for bugs.
With Bibb’s mixed media and assemblage art, everything is intensively process-oriented. The art’s production demands many skills from Bibb’s repertoire: welding, woodworking, painting, and graphic design.
The process begins with a hefty stack of Spiegel and Montgomery Ward catalogs from the early half of the last century. On a recent day in his studio in Decatur, Alabama, Bibb leafed through a catalog from 1945, stopping to admire the beauty of a spread that featured handbags in a mélange of rich autumn tones.
“I love the old advertisements, the type, everything—the style and design of the 1940s and 1950s.”
“I love the old advertisements, the type, everything—the style and design of the 1940s and 1950s,” he says. Bibb then points to another page torn from another publication. It features a policeman standing in a relaxed posture in the foreground. The saturated colors and composition are high in quality; it belies belief to think they simply form an ad and not a photograph hanging on some museum wall.
“With the older stuff, it has more to do with image quality than with a time period,” Bibb explains. “That’s photography, but it almost has an illustrative feel to it that I can’t really explain. It may be the printing process, plus it’s the style of it, too. And with the older stuff, you get the nicer paper.”
For his meticulous compositions, Bibb uses the figures, such as the little boy dressed up as a cowboy, and affixes them to a wooden canvas (which he also builds) into whatever scenario he has contrived. The backdrop might be an abstraction created with acrylic paint, drips sometimes oozing downward. The figures —nattily dressed men and women from the 1940s, birds, antique cars—are affixed at staggered levels, giving the sense of a realm created in various planes. It makes sense that his work, which is almost sculptural, is represented by The Copper Fox in Leiper’s Fork, which specializes in this aesthetic.
Bibb began his studies at Auburn University in industrial design, then switched to the art department, where he worked on his BFA in graphic design. He graduated in 1996 and spent most of his career working in graphic design and on museum installations.
A tall man with the smoothest of Southern drawls, he descended from the illustrious Bibb family of Alabama, from which the state’s first and second governors emerged. His recent family tree also includes figures of law and order: His father was a judge, as were his grandfather and great-grandfather.
“I would not be a very good attorney,” Bibb says. Indeed, one could see that this particular Bibb would not be content buried in legal briefs. But he is perfectly content among the shelves filled with boxes, the contents of each one labeled with a variety of items meant for his art: people, hands, legs, shoes, insects, animals, reptiles, birds, and deer. The list goes on and on.
The sight reminds one of another collage artist, Joseph Cornell, an American pioneer of assemblage art. In his Queens, New York, home Cornell housed stacks of shoeboxes, each filled with categories of items that might find their way into one of his famous shadowboxes.
In fact, it is more than Bibb’s systematic organization of birds and body parts that reminds one of Cornell. As did the innovative artist from Queens, Bibb includes mechanical workings in his pieces, as well as words and photos snipped from magazines. Bibb is a natural heir of Cornell, who, despite exhibiting with the Surrealists, could not be easily categorized.
As did Cornell, Bibb exhibits a fascination with birds, such as the swallows and quails he includes in some works. In one piece, Bibb created a bird from a side fin from a 1955 Cadillac, piano keys, and pieces of metal.
One of Bibb’s particularly involved works, a piece called Canary in the Coal Mine, recreated Davison Coal and Feed, an old store that was once located in Decatur. The surface of the work reveals the back walls of the store, which appear to be wallpapered in an abstract print. In the next plane float seed packets from Wayside flower catalogs from the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. A few millimeters beyond that, chickens and a canary appear, as well as the store owner’s feet propped up on a desk, appearing significantly larger than the man standing before them.
In one area, a chicken (snipped from an old Spiegel catalog) stands slightly taller than a young boy. Bibb plays with perspective and proportion in many of his works. “Obviously if you put something out of proportion, that will make it more noticeable,” Bibb says. “So I will do that with the pieces that I want to have the most emphasis on.”
At a certain point in the examination of an artwork so multilayered and complex, a viewer might think, What rabbit hole did this guy fall into? Clearly, he fell down the right one. And when he came out, he brought with him the contents of a vast imagination.