Libby Black’s paper sculptures of Gucci skateboards and paintings of chickens in Dior handbags simultaneously inspire delight (those pop colors! those hand-painted logos!) and concern (consumerism! obsessive consumption!). These objects are able to hold many ideas at once; they feel unresolved and ambiguous, in a good way.
Libby received her MFA from the California College of Art in 2001, and has had a number of solo shows in San Francisco and Los Angeles, along with group exhibitions that span the globe. After a brief stint in her home state of Texas, Libby and her partner and their 4-year old moved back to the Bay about a year and a half ago. We sat down on a lovely Sunday morning to chat about her upcoming show at Marx & Zavattero, Be Here Now.
Courtney: How would you describe your work?
Libby: My simple description is that I make high-end luxury goods out of paper, hot glue, and paint.
Now, since the economy has gone down, the luxury items that I make have shifted a bit. Living in Berkeley, people spend their money on different things, and I was becoming more aware of that while preparing for this show. There are still the designer logos around, but they’re kind of repressed or different. Maybe they are bumper stickers or recycling logos, but people have a lot to say. I have strong beliefs but have never been a big protester, in the same ways that Berkeley (as an idea or its identity) stands for, but I like Berkeley.
This show is really different, in terms of putting a twist on my typical work. I made a self-portrait, where I am Janis Joplin. I normally don’t have myself quite so present in the shows that I do, but this one is about the place where I live, it’s more honed-in. I feel really good about it, it feels right for where I’m at and for where the world is…everything made sense to me.
C: It seems like you’re fascinated with these objects but also have some kind of critical distance…
L: All of this work is close to that idea: that I do want this bag, and have that desire, so I’m going to satisfy that desire by making it, and then I don’t really have to have it. Part of that desire is that I was always taught that if you look good, then you are good, so having these kinds of accessories elevates you a little bit.
C: I love that Goyard tote painting!
L: I know! Why would you put dirty, wet produce in a $1300 bag? That piece was the funny one for me: someone does that! Someone can do that, and good for them. I made that piece, and it was an anchor for the show. The Goyard ABC piece, too, was important to shaping the show; I was teaching my kid the ABC’s and found that; it’s what you’d pick to monogram that bag, but also has this other layer to it, that I like. In this show, I’m talking about Berkeley, but at the same time I’m critical: there’s a certain look. It’s the same in the Mission: you have a one-speed bike…We all fit into these stereotypes. I’m not exactly judging people, but at the same time, I am.
C: There are both drawings/paintings and sculptures in this show; what do each of those kinds of objects allow you to do?
L: I get really bored when I make work. And a lot of the ads that I look at make sense that they were 2D: they aren’t accessible to walk around, or to see my body in relation to the scenes. But they exist, the magazine ads, in this flat form that you can’t touch or be a part of; you can just be seduced by them. It makes sense to me that sometimes I’d make a sculpture: for the show, I made a surfboard, for example. And I have done both, but each is particular. A pencil drawing can have a more narrative, dark, emotional quality which when you put it next to the colorful, playful seductiveness of the sculpture, they have a nice pairing. I think about how the pieces can interact with each other. A lot of the drawings are figurative, and I would probably never make a sculptural figure…
C: Do you enjoy the process of figuring out how things are made?
L: Yeah, when I make something, I get kind of excited! I have a feeling like, “Wow, I made this, and it actually works and stands up!” and it’s kind of like a little kid thing, delight. But sometimes I’ll make something and it’s just so bad that it never gets out of the house, and that’s frustrating.
You come up with an idea, and then you have to make it. It’s work after that. If you’re doing a drawing, the work doesn’t take that long; if you’re doing a big sculpture, its coats and coats of paint, and I’m losing interest right away, so I try to make something and make it until it’s done. I don’t ever have something laying around in my studio for a year that I’m working on. I finish it, and if it’s good, it’s good, and if it’s bad, it’s bad. If I stop, then it just doesn’t have a life, it just fizzles out.
C: There is some connection there with consumer desire, I think. You want something and then once you have it, the object changes. With your work, there is a twist: I am seduced by the objects from afar, and then when I come closer there is a flattening that happens. It shifts to a fascination with detail or construction, the ways that the object is not like the ‘real’ one.
L: Making these objects out of paper, I measure things, but they become a little wonky. I’m not trying to make them crafty—in fact, my craft has gotten a lot better through the years—but I like that imperfection. When I started making these things years ago, I was thinking about the fact that the paper could fall apart (the sculptures don’t actually fall apart, but they allude to that), they are not a sturdy thing. It is important to me that my hand is visible. It’s an intentional choice: I could go and get a manufactured surfboard, have one made with all of the bumper-stickers and things that I’ve put on the one that I made out of paper and paint. The tactile quality is more important to me, the idea of the object, rather than an actual manufactured, luxury item.
C: It has a different resonance. Chus Martinez, a curator who was visiting San Francisco recently said that the reason that she’s interested in re-making things (like art works from the 60s and 70s, for example, a hugely popular practice right now) is that they make visible the distance from the first time that they were made, in their re-making. They show that you can’t go back, allow you to recognize the distance.
L: I like that idea, the space between.
C: That is what your work does: points out the tensions between the ‘real’ and your version, which makes the work have a different resonance, a productive distance from the product. Perhaps in that vein, how do you relate to the idea of counterfeits?
L: I made a Louis Vuitton store (Manolo Garcia Gallery, 2003). I felt like I had gone out on a limb; it was a really different piece for me. It was about experiencing the store and the history of the brand, not really about making a fake store. Louis Vuitton called me down to their offices 3 weeks after the show went up and said that I needed to shut it down, that it was confusing to their customers. I thought, well, then your customers are idiots, then! These are not functional bags; it’s a parody, there is a difference.The store was about creating a space that I would like to go into, because I don’t feel comfortable going into the real store, and showing the history of the patterns of Louis Vuitton.
C: How do you feel about the actual objects, though, the luxury goods that you re-make?
L:When someone buys me something nice, I’m afraid to use it. I’ll often put it on a shelf to look at it. They always remain sculpture for me. These are kind of the same thing: I want a beautiful bag, so I make it, and then I live with it.
C: Looking at the Vuitton piece reminded me of how similar those stores are to galleries: there is only one of each thing on display (even though there are multiples in the back), carefully presented and maniacally dusted, fetishized as the ‘unique’ object, like art often is.
L: I like going into stores and seeing their displays. The displays elevate the objects, and then you have to deal with the people who are working there. I feel really exposed when I go into these kinds of luxury stores…
C: Probably the same ways that most people feel when they go into art galleries! Was there a person inside, who was the shopkeeper?
L: During the opening there were some sales ladies, but for the run of the show it was just the normal gallery sitter. There were no obvious signs that it was a regular gallery, though, no desk. If you bought a piece, you didn’t take it away with you that night or anything. We had a fake security guard, a guy in a suit…
C: There is an element of pretend: where paper pretends to be leather, or a gallery pretends to be a store, for example. And those objects stand in for the idea of something else, or reference something else…Your new work seems to be related to metaphor and masquerade more strongly than before.
L: For me, it relates back to the idea of fitting in. It’s like playing the part of something but not fully committing. People always want me to love or hate the objects that I’m making, or the culture that loves or hates them…but for me, it’s not either-or. People want me to have a clear stance, be hyper-political about the fashion world, and I both am and am not. I don’t feel like I need to pick sides.
C: I think that is what gives your work life, that distance or dissonance; they feel both appealing and appalling. That tension is important, the absurdity of the objects is important…carefully silly, but still seriously made.
L: It is goofy, you can’t get away from that. I like to be serious about it, and the drawings make the sculptures more serious. They’re darker and more emotional. When I’m looking through a magazine, I’m drawn to the emotion of the image, not the fact that she’s wearing some brand of shoes.
I did this show called Caught Up in the Moment (Heather Marx Gallery, 2005), where I made a picnic set for the perfect picnic. There was lobster and caviar and it was really over the top. When you looked at the drawings, though, it was a Burberry ad with someone on a horse, with a plaid scarf and the guy has this hood on but it’s reminiscent of the Ku Klux Klan somehow, and it’s creepy. I like this other potential narrative: what happened at this creepy picnic?
Be Here Now runs from March 20-April 24, 2010 at Marx & Zavattero, 77 Geary Street, Second floor, San Francisco, CA. www.marxzav.com