Categorized | Reviews

Cary Leibowitz @ Contemporary Jewish Museum

by Maria Porges

Sometimes, to paraphrase Aristotle, the whole of a show is greater than the sum of its art. From the moment one steps into the Contemporary Jewish Museum’s first floor gallery and involuntarily gasps at the sheer quantity of pieces, Cary Leibowitz: Museum Show offers an extraordinary opportunity for full frontal immersion into the artist’s screamingly colorful world of
humorous self-loathing as expressed primarily in pithy one-liners. The installation of nearly 350 original artworks and multiples is deliberately campy —“cheeky” is the adjective used in the museum’s brochure — from the pink and white stripes that, circus-like, adorn the pedestals of coffin-sized cases crammed full of ceramics, to the Pepto-Bismol pink and quinceañera-dress blue that covers the walls.  It is hard, however, to pick out a single work, or even an installation of several, that stands out.  Even the centrally located pyramid of metal wastebaskets, each emblazoned with words (“GAIN.” “WAIT.” “NOW.”) in a circus-y typeface and an image of the artist at his bar mitzvah, seem more like scenery than actors.

Leibowitz’s work is largely text-based, or, more accurately, text-driven; most of the paintings on pieces of wood that, salon-style, populate the painted walls, consist of a few words, brushed in bright colors on equally vivid fields.  Many of these bon mots, exuding a gay and often Jewish
sensibility, are nevertheless laugh-out-loud funny to a wide audience.  An eccentrically shaped piece painted pink with “Ellsworth Kelly’s butthole” scrawled on it seems hilarious, if something of an art world insider joke; but various pie charts detailing emotional states (“mostly sad,” “a little guilty” and “happy” or “sad, sad, and more sad”) or other bits of text (“my ass is too fat to let my career fall through the cracks”) are more universally appealing.

Candyass, the nom de art Leibowitz adopted early in his career, is a slang term meaning cowardly or wimpy.  This faux identity as a self-loathing, self-doubting, miserable whiner is expressed many works, including a tondo consisting of custom-made team pennants (“DROP DEAD,” “LIFE SUCKS,” “MISERY RULES,” “GO SADNESS”) and other pieces in which he lists his defects: “I am a bad person, I don’t deserve anything I have, I am superficial, my friends
should kill me,” etc.  As much as these exclamations of angst make one wince, they are certainly relatable, in that pretty much everyone (with the possible exception of our current president) has such moments of self-hatred.

Wheel of Fortune (Gay Pennants), 1989. Printed felt pennants and yarn, 48 in. diameter
Other pieces suggest what the show’s curator, Anastasia James, describes as “a palpable disdain for what is popular and a deep-rooted reverence for the ugly…intentionally out of step with the traditional narrative.”  These include (mostly) unpainted candlesticks, vases, cream pitchers, plates, pin dishes and napkin rings that the artist completed at “you-decorate-it, we-fire-itceramic studios, writing a few words on each with a ceramic
oxide pencil. Here again, art world in-jokes abound: declarations of love for Marsden Hartley and Karen Kilimnik; a dish cover divided by a cross with the names Robert Venturi, Andy Warhol, Kay Rosen and Peter Saul written in the four quadrants.

The underlying question is: What “traditional narrative” might this work be out of step with?
Since modern art is generally described as a break from classical ideals and contemporary art frequently gravitates towards ugliness, the answer is unclear.  That said, the overall effect of so much pink, blue, yellow and green, punctuated by of cases crammed full of white ceramics, is too endearing to be described as ugly. 

Outsider-ish art of this sort has been very much in vogue. However, in this instance, Leibowitz’s self-deprecating humor, which stands in sharp contrast to the dead seriousness of so much text-based art, sets his work apart.  That and his radically democratic willingness to sell work at any and every price point.  Throughout the exhibition, unique works stand cheek-by-jowl with editioned objects and unlimited multiples, some of which can be found on line or in the CJM’s gift store.
The first and last thing viewers see in the show is an autographed photo of Liberace hanging above a little painting that declares: “Attention!  All art critics must wash hands before leaving!”  Though difficult to parse exactly, the apparent message being is that Leibowitz, contented with his life and the way things have turned out, is immune to criticism.  After all, he’s having a show in this museum; it’s entertaining and fun and people are enjoying themselves.  These are inarguable facts.  I nod to the sign and walk out of the gallery.   
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Cary Leibowitz: Museum Show @ Contemporary Jewish Museum through Jun 25, 2017.
Installation images: JKA Photography. 

About the Author:

Maria Porges is an artist and writer who lives and works in Oakland. For over two decades, her critical writing has appeared in many publications, including Artforum, Art in America, Sculpture, American Craft, Glass, the New York Times Book Review and many other publications. The author of nearly 100 exhibition catalog essays, she presently serves as an associate professor at California College of the Arts.

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