3.15 / Review

Nothing Lasts Forever

By Mary Anne Kluth May 17, 2012

Thumbnail: Libby Black. Crap, 2012; graphite on paper; 9.5 x 10.5 in. Courtesy Marx & Zavattero, San Francisco.

Libby Black’s exhibition of new works at Marx & Zavattero, titled Nothing Lasts Forever, includes still-life drawings, paintings, and paint-and-paper sculptures, cataloging both quotidian objects and media touchstones significant to her identity “as a daughter, a lesbian, an artist, a mother, a dreamer, a fan, a lover, etc.”1 By assimilating a wide range of subjects with a cohesive visual style, Black creates a highly complex visual autobiography.

That’s not to say that she has abandoned the glossy subject matter of earlier works, such as a paper sculpture of a Mercedes, the Kate Spade store she replicated for the exhibition Bay Area Now 4, or her many drawings of luxury magazine advertisements. Her meticulous paper sculptures of expensive items offer an ambivalent critique of their financial and metaphorical value. Goyard Bag with Produce (2012), a sculpture of a luxury tote bag laden with organic asparagus and artisanal olive oil, and a series of floral still-life paintings—including Untitled Bouquet, Purple Tulips, and Gone Again (all 2012)—hint at a style-conscious, well-heeled existence. Black’s cool, detached paint handling, applied with broad, even strokes, calls to mind the superficial, nearly abstract appreciation of the good life in David Hockney’s swimming pool paintings from the late 1960s.

While these works appraise the surfaces of the items in Black's life, the partially dressed women in the graphite picture-within-a-picture in Sisters (2012) peer out from the drawing as if coolly appraising the work’s viewers. Though Black is not completely invested in glamorizing her subjects, her stylized rendering of them into flattened and simplified shapes recall the Deco-era portraits of aristocrats, movie stars, and oligarchs by Tamara de Lempicka. Like Black, de Lempicka made glamorous images that conveyed wealth and status. Although de Lempicka glorified expensive things—depicting herself driving a glowing green, then-new Bugatti in Autoportait (1925)—Black's attitude is more ambivalent. Whereas de Lempicka used flatness to render her subjects with smooth perfection, the flattened shapes in Black’s work, such as the flowers in Sisters or the bananas in Goyard, suggest an emptiness or artificiality.

Libby Black. Purple Tulips, 2012; oil on canvas; 36 x 24 in. Courtesy Marx & Zavattero, San Francisco.
Libby Black. Goyard Bag with Produce, 2012; paper, acrylic, and hot glue; 25 x 22 x 12 in. Courtesy Marx & Zavattero, San Francisco.

Diametrically counter to the tranquil, unworried imagery of the floral still lifes in the show is a set of intimately sized drawings arranged in a cluster, based on photographic images depicting moments of catastrophe, protest, or transition: the first openly gay tennis star, Martina Navratilova, celebrating a victory on the court; the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger disaster; the federal raid on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas; and a tightly cropped shot of a baby crowning in a mother’s birth canal, as if responding to Gustave Courbet’s The Origin of the World (1866) with an even more intense depiction of a disembodied vagina. Queers are Dears (2012) and Crap (2012), two other drawings in the series, both show gay-rights protests in which people are actively demonstrating against their marginalization by an oppressive cultural ideology. Only images of Axl Rose and Roseanne Barr seem out of place in the grouping. Within the context of the rest of the exhibit's genteel subject matter, perhaps these two images serve as personal symbols, taken from pop culture, to connote a rebellion against nominally refined aesthetic sensibilities. What’s more, Black’s careful attention to the faces and signage of the demonstrators indicates her sympathy and support for their cause. Given that the images and objects that she selects to represent her life connote financial comfort, leisure, and detachment, the images in this small grouping—and of the protests in particular—offer a surprising contrast, with their focus on turmoil and American culture. Black also defines herself and her place in this country beyond her personal style, tastes, or means as a consumer.

In an increasingly polarized political climate, when our national reliance on a market economy has been tested again and again to the point of unrest, even the basic capitalist assumption that material wealth directly equates to individual happiness is too simplistic. Black’s work has always addressed the thin veneer of social status and desire that propels consumer culture. With this exhibition, she reveals the personal well of complex emotion beneath her critical gaze. Wealth and its accoutrements can’t solve thorny political problems and aren’t the same thing as love and acceptance, even if they're marketed as perfect substitutions. As Black is a maker of objects likely to be collected and appreciated for their aesthetic properties, her ultimately critical stance is as potentially radical as its packaging is familiarly seductive.

 

Nothing Lasts Forever is on view at Marx & Zavattero, in San Francisco, through May 26, 2012.

Notes

  1. Libby Black, “Artist Statement,” Marx & Zavattero, http://www.marxzav.com/artist.php?id=1.

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