Bright Common Spikes: The Sculpture of John Bisbee

Story posted January 16, 2008

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John Bisbee

Brads, nails, and spikes take on the characteristics of line, mass and color in sculptures by artist and Lecturer in Art John Bisbee. Covering his more than 20-year career, Bright Common Spikes: The Sculpture of John Bisbee, features 20 large-scale abstract sculptures of nails that are welded and forged into various organic configurations. The exhibition will be on view at the Portland Museum of Art January 24, 2008, through March 23, 2008.

Bisbee in The Boston Globe

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Helio, 2006, 12-inch spikes, 84 x 84 x 9 inches, Collection of the artist

The January 20, 2008, edition of The Boston Globe features an in-depth profile of Bisbee and his art. Click here to read the article and watch a video slideshow.


Bisbee welds, cuts, hammers, forges, and bends his nails and spikes into a variety of forms for his sculptures. Since 1988, when he overturned a five gallon bucket of nails that had rusted and fused together, he has been creating small- to large-scale sculptures comprising mainly brads, nails and spikes.

Over the years, as Bisbee has gradually increased the size of his nails from brads to 10- and 12-inch spikes, the overall scale of his work has become more expansive. Bisbee began to explore the implications of monumentality in more serious ways with a series he calls "Tons." Each piece is made up of one ton of nails, and to date he has completed 11 "Tons." They vary in type of fabrication and assembly — groups of nails are welded together and piled in various configurations into corners, spread across the floor, or affixed to the wall.

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Cocoon, 1989, welded brads, 25 x 9 1/2 x 12 inches, Collection of the artist

Some "Tons" pieces vary with each new installation, and Bisbee does not determine the exact configuration until the moment a piece is installed. He arrives at the gallery with barrels filled with the component pieces and lets the spirit of the day and the idiosyncrasies of the site suggest the rest. Bisbee's intuitive working method comes closest to the surrealist process of automatic drawing, allowing the subconscious mind to direct the hand.

In addition to the "Tons" series, Bisbee has recently produced more intricately patterned pieces. These works share the decorative flair that characterizes a great deal of contemporary painting and sculpture. For his most recent sculptures, Bisbee uses a forge, press, and hand tools to flatten and bend his nails into even more elaborate shapes that resemble calligraphic lines. Some of these flattened nails are then welded together to form larger mandala-like shapes; others are piled freely on the floor.

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Spine, 1995, welded brads, dimensions variable, Collection of the artist

Bisbee's solo museum exhibitions include the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, N.Y., and the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City, Mo.

A recent recipient of a 2006 Joan Mitchell Foundation Grant, Bisbee has also received a Maine State Individual Artist Grant (2000) and The Rappaport Prize (2003), administered by the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park. He has also been awarded the Purchase Prize and the William E. Thon Jurors' Prize from the Portland Museum of Art's Biennial exhibition (1998, 2001). His work has been reviewed in Art in America, ARTnews, Sculpture Magazine, The New Yorker, The New York Times and The Boston Globe.

John Bisbee and his art were the focus of a Spring 2005 Bowdoin magazine feature. Read it here.

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Plume, 2001-02, welded 12-inch spikes, dimensions variable, Collection of the artist

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