Libby Black

Artist, Berkeley // February 2013
Our lives are marked by monumental events and spectacular disasters...mundane moments, small pleasures, and frivolous distractions. The act of drawing and painting these images is an attempt to preserve moments that are already gone or to find meaningful connections between arbitrary things.

I first encountered Libby’s work online, specifically, a 2007 sculptural installation called Work Out— a life-sized replica of a home gym that included a Prada stationary bike, a Louis Vuitton bench press, a Burberry punching bag and a Chanel weight belt, all made from paper, paint and hot glue. I thought the installation was hilarious. And I allowed myself to stay amused by it for a good while before I felt the need to consider it more critically. It’s nice sometimes to just think something is funny and not know exactly how to explain why. But the comedic effect of Work Out is interesting to mull over— is a gym funny? Are luxury goods or carefully rendered paper sculptures funny? No, none of these things make me laugh out loud (though sometimes luxury goods make me smirk from time to time)— it’s the convergence of these things that elicits the laughter. When our desires, indulgences, pleasures, and all the branding and products that capitalize on them are taken out of their usual context (and brought to let’s say, a gym!) a protective veneer quickly falls away and an element of the absurd is revealed, and we are forced to wrangle with how and why we consume, and why we ALWAYS seem to be in a state of wanting.

Recently, Libby has moved away from her earlier, more explicit explorations of high-end luxury, exclusivity, and the impulses of desire to investigate quieter pleasures in life, such as cut flowers and time to read. This work is much more ambiguous and subtle, featuring objects that hint at both an intimate personal narrative and a collective one— particular book titles, celebrity icons, and media headlines point to her own affinities and those of our culture at large, and ask us to consider how we string together events and objects in our lifetime to create meaning. With the works on paper and paintings she’s currently working on she’s also addressing the heartbreaking nature of time, and the fact that though we can revisit significant moments, we can never truly go back.

When we visited Libby in her Berkeley home studio she told us she grew up in an environment that promoted the ethos that if you looked good, you were good. Obviously, I think much of Libby’s work pushes against that notion and sometimes overtly makes fun of it, especially in some of her earlier sculptural installations. But, Libby also conceded that though she often approaches themes dealing with luxury, branding, and desire with sharp-edged humor and a healthy dose of mistrust, she recognizes that she is also just as susceptible to all the wanting. This push and pull in both Libby’s past and present work is what I think is most interesting— the simultaneous evocation of attraction and repulsion, loss and recovery, distance and proximity… holding all those opposing forces at once seems very real to me.

What mediums do you work with?
Pencil, acrylic, gouache, hot glue, oil paint, and canvas.

How would you describe your subject matter or the content of your work?
I remake high-end luxury goods out of paper, acrylic paint, and hot glue. I also make drawings and paintings. My current work is based on imagery culled from disparate sources like fashion magazines, snapshots, newspapers, pop culture websites, television, movies and still lifes that I have staged.

In the past your work has explored luxury, high-end fashion motifs, and the excessiveness of desire and consumption— and your work continues to do so, but recently it seems more subtle and with shades of impermanence. Can you tell us about this shift?
Yes, the economy changed and I also was getting bored with just making luxury goods (although I still make them). The new work is very exciting to me. Also everyone just thinks I make sculptures. In all the shows there have always been paintings with the sculptures. They play off of each other. I am a painter. My language is painting. The sculptures are about the paint and the pattern of the brand.

I am interested in having the new work chart a path through personal history and a broader cultural context to explore themes of impermanence and identity. Our lives are marked by monumental events and spectacular disasters. I have distinct mental images that represent such experiences for me – things like the birth of my son or the space shuttle Challenger exploding in 1986. Our lives are also filled with mundane moments, small pleasures, and frivolous distractions. The act of drawing and painting these images is an attempt to preserve moments that are already gone or to find meaningful connections between arbitrary things. For me the still life in my work functions in a similar way. It is a staged collection of keepsakes and other personal items displayed with arrangements of cut flowers. Making the work is a way to take pleasure in re-creating attractive objects while also coding my identities (as a daughter, a lesbian, an artist, a mother, a dreamer, a fan, a lover, etc.) into the compositions. The still lifes are more about quieter luxuries in life— cut flowers, time to read, etc., and less about the more overt idea of luxury that I often work with in my sculptures. I’d like a viewer to look at my still lifes and recognize them as ‘time capsules’ in a way, and to experience a singular time in history in a really intimate way.

Do you see your work as autobiographical at all?
Yes, very much so. The new work more so than the old. Although the old always had my personal stories in it, but they were hidden by other things.

Do you intend your work to challenge the viewer?
I hope so. I like the subtle shifts in the pieces. Giving the viewer a starting point and letting it go from there. I have a dry sense of humor and a lot of my work is about poking fun at ideas of consumerism, branding, luxury, etc. and yet simultaneously embracing them.

Do you have a day job? What is it? What does it mean to you?
I teach at CCA. I really enjoy teaching and watching my students succeed. It is very exhausting and exciting at the same time. It is kind of like being in the studio. There are highs and lows and sometimes I have a student that has other issues that I have to deal with that have nothing to do with teaching.

What does having a physical space to make art in mean for your process, and how do you make your space work for you?
I have had a bunch of studios. Some at home, and some away from home. I have a new studio now that is attached to the house. I love it. There is nothing better then working all day and then being able to go in the morning first thing with a cup of tea and see what you did the night before. Or to go in and just put a layer of paint on something. Some people think you should not have a studio at home. I think that is not true.

What are you presently inspired by— are there particular things you are reading, listening to or looking at to fuel your work?
Flowers, books, perfume (Chanel N. 5), Whitney Houston, the relationship between Picasso and Francoise Gilot, good food, wine, Rod Stewart, and the color red. I am still thinking about Just Kids by Patti Smith. I read it years ago but I am still thinking about it. A lot of what I’m interested in is all about inspiring the senses— tasting, smelling, seeing, etc. Also, I think a lot about the cultural icons we have, and how we address them in the everyday and how the story of our icons gets told through media.

Is there something you are currently working on, or are excited about starting that you can tell us about?
I have a couple different things going. I make a bunch of stuff and then seehow things fit. I am still at the beginning of this newer work. It is like a roller coaster going up and down. I am mostly thinking about still lifes— sculptures and paintings of still lives.

How do you navigate the art world?
There are no rules. I can’t over think it. I just try and make the best work that I can.
I have always liked this saying, I think Dave Muller had it in one of his pieces I saw in New York at the Whitney Museum of American Art one year —“It is the same people on the way up, as it is on the way down.” I tell my students that. There is nothing worse then an artist with an ego!

Do you have a motto?
“Inch by inch life’s a cinch.” My mother told me that.

Are you involved in any upcoming shows or events? Where and when?
I have some work in a group show “Simulacrum” at the Columbus College of Art and Design.

To see more of Libby’s work: