By NOAH BECKER, Dec. 2017
The New York based artist Claire Lieberman joined me for a conversation about her varied practice.
Noah Becker: Did you always have art around you as a child?
Claire Lieberman: The arts were very important in my family. Noting my interest in making things, my grandmother often took me to visit the Milwaukee Art Museum. We visited classical works and viewed experimental projects, too. My parents took us to see new theater, music, film, and dance which gave me exposure to how creative impulses play out in time sequences. My high school was a student-initiated free school with just thirty-five students so the city was really our lab. There, I was lucky to learn from actual artists and actors through apprenticeship and performance instead of through the usual make-something-to-take-home model. This encouraged me to think about art as a way to develop ideas and how to sustain exploration.
Becker: So you are from Milwaukee?
Lieberman: Yes, Milwaukee! My childhood in a (now inner-ring) suburb was bracketed by expansive stretches of farmland on one side and the culture and cacophony of city life on the other. Lake Michigan abuts downtown Milwaukee, and I would ride the train along the serene lake to Chicago to see my grandmother. I remember watching the black branches on white snow from the train window. I was moving but it seemed as though the broken tree limbs were jumping up and down. This fine line between chaos and stillness plays an important role in my thinking.
Becker: When did you realize that you wanted to make sculptures?
Lieberman: Concretely? In art school. The Boston Museum School then was a weird combination of cutting-edge, conceptual practice and figurative-based art that was a holdover from the days before the radical shift at the school in the ’70s. The continuing paradox in my work results from these parallel trains of ideas and imagery that run through it simultaneously. This led me to use a device that borrows from music composition: counterpoint - the contrast or interplay of elements. It also led me to a lot of happy confusion. I feel free to merge aesthetic visuals with deeper or raw arguments.
Becker: Talk about how you work with the space, these are not just stand-alone sculptures.
Lieberman: I’m creating a program more than an installation. In UDBO Playground, the tight arrangement of bases in a tic-tac-toe pattern creates a kinetic activity as viewers move in and about the discrete forms as if transported to the inside of a game. The purpose of the pedestals is subverted in this arrangement: They fluctuate between containment (physical support and directed movement) and container (holder of action and ideas). The pedestal is a precipice, too, as the prospect of something falling is always present. The heaviness of individual pieces carries an awareness of the history and mass of solid objects, but the nine-point grid arrangement simulates a network of relationships. It’s like a muted ride on the subway and then a jolt and a pull. Sometimes when you turn a corner, you get a surprise. That’s how I want my work to feel.
Becker: Your sculptures are on the edge of recognition. The viewer almost knows what they are looking at but it's elusive. What do these black marble pieces symbolize?
Lieberman: To mash up a contemporary art phrase: These objects are beautiful but also a little anxious. All of the sculptures carry a pulsing sensation. The weight of the stone adds to their physical presence, but the forms have an underlying fleshy elegance and rawness. I am conjuring children’s playthings and re-scripting war toys, with the knowledge that there’s a degree of disquietude in play. It’s the way children work out sublimated aggression. These are playthings that have “grown up” to haunt, provoke, attract, and delight. There’s a weighty sphere with engraved flowers on the stem that refers to a grenade. An outsized flower form that connotes innocence but might also suggest a propeller. A funky radio from the space-age era that looks almost soft and has little button-like protrusions that seem as if they could be pushed into a plump, plastic surface. A smaller grouping in the show is a collection of space guns cast in glass that, in a prototypically nostalgic way, examines associations of violence, fragility, and humor.
Becker: I see. I also noticed that you make prints but do you also make paintings?
Lieberman: The prints are parallel projects that respond to the sculptures and installations. Aside from that, I might use gouache paint to visualize projects. It lends a sense of atmosphere so that an image or rendered object can convey weightlessness. Curiously, I often do these with my left hand. This seems to release creative impulses or solve conundrums.
Becker: There's a goth aspect to the way you use black as a color. The bears you make are black, where does this come from?
Lieberman: If by goth you mean dark and dramatic, I would agree. There’s a long tradition of rendering the “real” in white, translucent marble, a tradition that I’d like to resist. Moreover, while I like to carve, I am working toward using the dense and reflective surface of black marble to suggest armaments, as in the grenade pieces. Black can also be somber, mysterious, elegant, qualities not always found in “traditional” white marble.
Becker: When you use red Jell-O and juxtapose it against your hard black marble sculptural objects, what are you trying to accomplish?
Lieberman: There’s a contrast in the ostensible certainty of stone and the silly strangeness of Jell-O. I am testing the logic of both. They are imagined opposites and I am interested in the tension that emerges when the black marble elements are inserted into a field of Jell-O. The mirror-surfaced stone sinks, swims, floats through layers of carnal, somatic Jell-O. The juxtaposition is also a discussion of permanence and disintegration as moisture slips away from bodily forms in the Jell-O and they collapse. I hope these unexpected pairings inspire a lively, visceral response. Furthermore, Jell-O and stone both carry a sense of time. The addition of looped video sequences introduces a third sensation of time as the eye scans between perceived and elapsed time and filters away disquiet through the layers of sensory experience.
Becker: What is the connection if any between the bears and the marble pieces?
Lieberman: I see my practice as a broad ensemble performance in which play and danger are a short distance apart. I also want to suspend the argument between representation and abstraction, which is oddly quaint when the two are viewed as mutually exclusive. The bears and other stuffed playthings are stand-ins for the figure and for notions of attraction/repulsion, something that plays out in the black marble pieces as well. These are lush, dense, highly polished, and alluring forms, some of which correlate directly with weapons, some with toys, and many with both. This circles back to a greater conversation about the confusion between play and violence in contemporary culture. Many artists use stuffed animals as totems that belong to others in order to calculate a sense of loss or displacement in the viewer, or to make an argument pertaining to kitsch. Stuffed animals are cute and cuddly, but I am linking them to notions of harsh behavior, reflection of self, and even disappearance. I can't enjoy seeing the bears without also feeling sadness or impending doom for them.
Becker: What is coming up for you?
Lieberman: I’m excited that the glass space guns are headed for a show at mudac museum in Lausanne, Switzerland this spring. The exhibition, Line of Sight: Lethal Design, “questions the paradoxical relations we entertain with murderous objects.” I also want to explore disappearance from an ecological perspective and have started a new installation that sets white alabaster “ice chunks” adrift in a sea of blue Jell-O. These wild ideas come from a trip I took to the Arctic and the absurd arguments we are having over climate change. I am planning a second game set of nine black marble pieces that is to be playful, even ludicrous. My interest in playthings is broadening to include games as source material. Games are more orchestrated: They have rules (probably), and competition and strategy. There’s a confusion politically about what is real and what’s a game. I want to talk about that. WM
Noah Becker is an artist and the publisher and founding editor of Whitehot Magazine. He shows his paintings internationally at museums and galleries. Becker also plays jazz saxophone. Becker's writing has appeared in The Guardian, VICE, Garage, Art in America, Interview Magazine, Canadian Art and the Huffington Post. He has written texts for major artist monographs published by Rizzoli and Hatje Cantz. Becker directed the New York art documentary New York is Now (2010). Becker's new album of original music "Mode For Noah" was released in 2023.
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