Libby Black makes paintings and sculptural installations that draw from disparately sourced imagery, including luxury commodities, fashion magazines, film and TV media, and personal experiences. Black’s practice engages with constructions of the self and explorations of identity alongside the impermanence of history and culture. Her sculptural installations are still-lifes constructed through painted paper sculptures that are both reproductions of real objects and imagined constructions of items we consume everyday. Her works layer images, objects, references, and motifs atop one another, creating a complex and developed assemblage of meaning and form. Not only creating internal narratives through their relational structure, her works re-examine the way objects are viewed and judged, and the implicit and explicit meanings applied to them personally, historically, and politically.
Libby Black was born in Toledo, Ohio, earning her BFA from Cleveland Institute of Art and her MFA from California College of the Arts. She has shown work nationally, most recently showing in the “Ten Year Anniversary” group show at Joshua Liner Gallery (NYC), and a solo exhibition “A Light That Never Goes Out” at Gallery 16 (San Francisco, CA). Black has been an artist in residence at SPACES in Cleveland, OH (2007) and the Montalvo Arts Center in Saratoga, NY (2005). Her work has been featured in Juxtapoz, Art in America, Artforum, ARTNews, The New York Times, and New American Paintings. Black currently lives and works in Berkeley, CA and teaches at San Francisco State University.
What is your background in art and how has your work developed materially?
I’ve always made art, but I think I really got into it when I moved from Ohio to Texas my sophomore year of high school. I was interested in art when I was in Ohio -- my mom would take me to the Toledo Art Museum and I was taking weekend classes at the museum studio program -- but I think moving to Texas just threw some fire at me and ignited me to keep pursuing it. I went to the Cleveland Institute of Art for undergrad, which was a five year program at the time, and then I went straight to graduate school at California College of the Arts here in San Francisco. I just kept going and never stopped.
In graduate school I took a class with Jim Hodges, a Capp Street artist at CCA Wattis Institute. He asked me a lot of questions about my work: why are you painting on wood panel or on canvas? Why isn’t this just on the wall? Why aren’t you using this other material? His questions opened up a lot for me in terms of my practice. My works are sculptures, but I think of them as paintings and my language is in painting. Their dimensionality was really just a way for me to bring what I wanted to paint closer to the viewer. I made them come closer to you. I do still make paintings on panels and drawings on paper, but those are more conceptually driven. Sometimes I want to make something that feels small and intimate to a viewer to see at arms length away on a wall, and I might not need it to come into the space as something that the viewer walks around and can see their body in relation to. All of this depends on what the concept is behind the piece. The sculptures are paint, paper, and hot glue or matte medium. I’m using painting materials, so they’re still like paintings, but they’re in the space with you instead of on a wall. Thinking about them in that way really opened things up for me.
Your sculptures are scaled to the human body, and even though you’re not creating a figure or human form, the body and its absence is very present in the work. How are you thinking about the relationship between the piece and the viewer and how the objects relate to people?
The sculptures are to scale, so it’s not something like a Claes Oldenburg where I’m making something extra large or extra small. Everything is life size in relation to a human body.
Right now I can’t physically make the figure that I want to make or that I feel comfortable with. There are a lot of figures in my paintings, but the sculptures are like still lifes or self portraits where the figure itself isn’t obviously present. I’ve made a couple of chairs out of paper, and for me the chairs act as stand- ins for figures.
The first sculpture I ever made was a Louis Vuitton purse that I really wanted but couldn’t afford. It was a $1,200 saddle-bag, so I made it out of paper and that fulfilled the need for me to have it and making it opened up a whole world for me. I’ve never wanted to make a miniature version of anything. There have been some things that I’ve thought about making really large, but I like the idea that you’re going to come in and see something that is recognizable and be forced to question it. I don’t want to fake people out. I want it to be immediately relatable to the viewer, and size is a factor in that.
Thinking of the Louis Vuitton purse, can you talk about your interest in fashion and style, consumption, and popular culture that are themes within your work?
In the beginning, my work was solely about that. The works were facades; I had these things that represent real objects, but they were made out of paper and could potentially fall apart. I was commenting on their nature and thinking about how the objects are viewed, what it means to look a certain way and fit in, and about being judged. Then the economy crashed and things changed with me. I wanted to delve deeper into those themes and expand upon them. Around that time, I also started looking at my identity as a lesbian and what that means and how I’m judged in that way. I made all these paintings of old, pulp fiction book covers that had absurd depictions of lesbian narratives and stories that I found online. Obviously playing with the idea of judging a book by its cover, I was thinking about how these books were made as a source of entertainment, but in a kind of ‘back alley’ way. I started to think
about that, and then I was also thinking about addiction. The celebrity portraits that I’ve made are all about addiction and overdosing. It’s obviously also about celebrity and fame, about appearing a certain way and being judged. But in addition to that, it’s interesting how they also have this thread where they all have also OD’d. When I think about the work, I also think about the end result when I’ve made a collection of things. I’m thinking about how the piece would look next to something -- next to a drawing, next to a sculpture -- and how that can add another layer of meaning to it. It’s not, for instance, just a drawing of Janis Joplin, it’s that drawing next to the chair and what that means. One of my chair pieces is about women and their careers, and the glass ceiling in the art world -- but it’s a loop of all these things constantly threaded together.
Can you talk about your process for selecting an idea and developing it into an image? How are you choosing subjects? How are you connecting your own personal experiences to these larger narratives in the work?
A lot of this is personal, but it can also come across as not personal at all. I make work that I want to have conversations about and I try to put different things together. It’s kind of like remixing something or having different melodies within one song. Some of what I think and talk about are broader issues, but I also try to mix more personal experiences with them.
At the beginning of the summer I made a series of small, 8 x 10” gouache paintings on wood panels. There’s an image of a statue with an Hermes scarf on it, and then there’s another that’s a photo I took at the Castro theater here in San Francisco and it’s playing the Whitney Houston documentary so it says “Can I Be Me”, and then there’s a picture of me, my partner, and my kid at the women’s march in New York. The statue with the Hermes scarf is just what it is; it’s a beautiful painting and it’s an Hermes scarf and it’s absurd. But then what is next to it is more personal, and when they are all collectively together there’s this throbbing in and out of what is personal and what’s not -- whether you know it or not. And then there’s this painting I did of Stonewall in New York after the Orlando shooting and there’s a bunch of flowers outside and a sign that says “Stop the Hate,” so there are things that are more directly related to me mixed with larger issues that surround me.
I think life is kind of like that; we have these highs and lows, but we also have these middle tones that exist between all of that. I have to switch between all these things to have it well rounded -- the drawing, the painting, the sculpture...but also the political, the personal, the fashion, the pop culture, and the historical references. I have all of these tools and it’s just about how I lay them out and what form that ends up taking.
How do you go about developing something materially? Can you talk about that work process of bringing an idea into fruition?
I made a series of protest drawings that are just pencil and paper. I had no desire to recreate that subject sculpturally by making a protest sign or something. I was thinking about the act of watching something on social media and also in a crowd and about the space of that, which relates to the conceptual space of the sculptures and whether they need to come into your space or if you need distance with it. Looking at the particular image that I took, it shows the back of my partner, my son, and myself looking at the crowd. My friend, Anne J Regan, made these denim patches for us that we put on the back of our jackets, so mine said “Outrage, Outrage, Outrage”, our son Jasper’s said “Dudes for Women”, and then Jen’s is a peace sign. That image just had to be flat. I couldn’t recreate it out of paper. I suppose I could have made the patches, but I didn’t have the desire to and the image didn’t require it. It’s an instance where you weren’t there -- that was a moment that I had with my family.
On the other hand, I make a lot of sculptures of luggage and I think about baggage and what that means, what’s inside your bag, this idea of these objects travelling. All the trunks have been sculptures and they’re usually stacked . For me that just makes sense. They become kind of like abstract paintings because of all the different logos on it together. Sometimes it’s just a feeling that I can’t fully describe. When you travel, people buy luggage sets that all match, which are these absurd things. So I was imagining what if we had a Burberry one, a Louis Vuitton one, a Gucci one, a Goyard one, all stacked on top of one another -- what would that look like? What does baggage mean? So that’s kind of how those always have to be sculptures.
I know you did a Vivienne Westwood one that was an imaginary luggage trunk, and then you also do direct reproductions sourced from images. Can you talk about that relationship and push/pull in the imaginary source vs the real image and how you are thinking about reproduction in the rendering of the piece?
In the beginning I made the object how it was actually made. Some of this stuff is actually just absurd. Like, why would somebody buy that? I’ve had tons of conversations about this stuff, and sometimes people really want me to hate this stuff, but I actually don’t hate it at all. I’m seduced by it. I look at this stuff and I’m like that’s not me, but I want it, but I don’t want it….I go back and forth. After making some of these things, I began to starting asking myself, what would I want them to make?
I made a Chanel rowboat and an old-school, orange Goyard life vest that you just put your head through and tie around. Goyard doesn’t actually make that life vest, but how awesome would that be to be sitting in a Chanel rowboat wearing a Goyard life vest? I think that would be gorgeous, in a lot of fucked up ways. And not just gorgeous, but stupid and absurd and funny. I have a super dry sense of humor, so the rowboat was a Chanel, one person row boat that was a survival boat. I had just turned 40, so it was called ‘Spirit’ and all of these survival things were inside, including the Goyard life vest. There was also a Valentino backpack that was based on a real backpack that was camouflage and had these little butterflies on it. I had really wanted the backpack, but it was like $3,200, and I don’t have that money and I would never actually use the backpack because I would spill coffee on it or something. I like to play with this over the top, crazy stuff. With my protest drawings too -- they had hate signs, like ‘God Hates Fags’ which are over the top as well, but in a different way. I like there to be that edge where you are seduced, but you can also laugh and maybe even cry a bit. Things can be beautiful and horrific in this way.
Can you talk about your conception of the installations as still lifes? How are you approaching them and constructing the scenes and internal narratives?
I love still lifes. I started by painting them and I made a series of these floral still lifes of flowers in a vase. A few years ago a friend of mine bought me a book of the last flower paintings of Manet that he made when he was in bed and dying. They were so simple and beautiful. I was teaching at the time and, inspired by these paintings, I gave an assignment to my students to go get a bouquet of flowers and paint it. I left class that day and just thought, I’m giving my students this assignment, but I actually really want to do this, so I went home and started making these paintings. I didn’t want just the flower and the vase. I feel like I always want to say something -- even if it’s not screaming, I need to at least whisper something -- so I put the flowers on books, so it would be like three books and then a vase of flowers. There’d be a narrative through what the books were. I was also thinking about how flowers, especially fresh-cut flowers, are a kind of luxury. There’s also the journey of making that painting -- going to get the flowers and setting it all up. I love that type of work, and through making it I felt that I should make them sculptural. All of them are casual still lifes that would be laid out in your house with these scenarios. Some of this stuff I actually own and arrange to look at, and some of the things I just bring together.
I do a mix of working from an actual still life and not. With the floral paintings, I would get all of that stuff and take a lot of photos because those were a little harder to paint quickly before the flowers died. Or I’d source imagery from the library or go to old bookstores and find these old lesbian romance novels. So I do love the journey of searching for and finding the materials and setting it all up. Some of them I do make up, so it’s a little bit of everything. I feel like you need both, you need the fantasy with the real.
How are you approaching narrative with your work?
I feel like I’m a really literal person, so I kind of want to spell things out for the viewer, which is a quality that I’m also always fighting with a little bit. It’s a push and pull of giving the viewer too much or not enough.
I’m making a piece right now that has a Picasso book that is pink written by Gertrude Stein. It’s a used book that I found in a store. And she was a lesbian, so it’s all right there -- his name, her name, a pink book. I want you to understand that, which I think is pretty self explanatory if you know who those people are. And then beneath that book, is a ripped out magazine page that I recreated as a drawing in pencil, which is of a girl slumped over a tree trunk wearing a floral skirt. So you have this sculpture of this beautiful pink book with this drawing that almost looks velvety because of the sheen of the graphite on the paper. And then underneath that is a book by Mapplethorpe called “Some Women”. And I was just kind of thinking about that title, some women -- what does that mean? You have Picasso, who was a total womanizer, and then Mapplethorpe, who was a gay man, and then you’re thinking about what women are...and then on top of all that is a paper animal skull that I made. So it’s like a traditional, old school still life with the skull talking about life and riches and all of that, and then that will all sit on top of a small, cosmetic Hermes trunk, which will then be sitting on top of a blue Goyard trunk. So it will all be a stack. It’s a still life, but I want you to have these historical art references there and then also have you think about women and death with the skull and then also fashion.
This other piece I’m working on is a little bit more complicated, and I might change my mind about it. It’s a black chair with pink, high heel shoes on the floor that are Prada. On the chair is the book “Art and Queer Culture”, and then on top of that book is the Sunday New York Times newspaper that came out a few weeks ago that has Whitney Houston on the cover with Clive Davis, which will all be in pencil. And the Times article was all about what did Whitney Houston really want. On top of the paper will be a book called “Drinking: A Love Story”, and then on top of that will be a paper cactus in a pot -- just straight up very phallic. Hanging on the chair is a baseball cap that has stars on it with stripes on the bill, so very American and patriotic. So it’s about pop culture, overdosing, sexuality, gender -- it’s all of that. And all of that is super loaded to me. But I was thinking about what happened to Whitney and all that pressure, and then thinking too about the heels, which are super feminine crossed with this phallic cactus and the American hat, and how that all speaks to American culture and popular culture and how we label things in these specific ways.
And then the stack is how everything is literally stacked up against us…
Perfect. You got it.
These works obviously have a lot going on in terms of content and also physical individual pieces. What is your starting point and how do you go about developing them? Can you walk me through the process of fleshing out these structures?
It’s a mix of aesthetics and layering of meaning. It’s like stacking things like an ice cream sundae, where there are all these individual elements but they all come together into this cohesive whole. And there are small things too, I always want something hanging over the back of a chair, which is an aesthetic thing for me, similar to the cherry on top of the sundae.
Certain works are about very particular themes. I’ve made three chairs so far, and the blue one, which was the first one I made, was about making these flower paintings, being an artist, having a kid, and time. The piece is called No One Ever Told You It Was Going To Be Easy. I made this paper book based on a book of Ellsworth Kelly’s beautiful contour-line flower drawings that I had open on top of the chair seat. I love that book, and on top of it I put an Hermes watch that my mom gave me as a birthday gift. Draped across the back of the chair is my son’s tie, which is J. Crew. So it’s decoding all these things together.
I Believe In You was a yellow chair sculpture. I initially wanted to have this Keith Haring book open on it. It just didn’t look right. I started to think about women artists and how I just turned 40, and how people think that women artists’ careers die at 40. I went through my house and looked at the books that I had that were strictly about women. I’ve always loved Jessica Stockholder, and I’ve had this book about her forever, so I remade that book. I remade a book of Annie Leibovitz’s women series -- all those women in that book and those photographs, I love that. So it was combining and thinking about all of that, and then I put a bouquet of echinacea flowers on top, so it was also thinking about healing. And then there was a purse strapped over the backside of the chair.
My third chair was All The Inches Added Up which was green with an open Nike shoebox on it. Inside the box were all these momentos from my life. I swam Alcatraz two years ago, so I made the medal I got from that and put it in there. There was also a Whitney Houston cassette tape and a Swatch watch in there. I had a hat laid over the chair as well. This chair was a self portrait. So there are all these different decoders for each piece and each story. I really build these things up and think about them all in layers, thinking about what the viewer can look at and what avenues they can go down in the piece.
What makes a successful artwork and how do you approach balancing the many elements that you are thinking about?
Some of it is technical; I’m the type of person where sometimes I have to make things a few times to figure out the structure and form. When I made these works in the beginning they were really wonky, but I think I’m just honest with it. I don’t try to make reproductions. There is a line where a chair has to be able to physically stand up, but I also want my hand to be visible in there because it’s about inserting myself and thinking about belonging, not-belonging, and in-betweenness. But they have to be structurally sound, like a chair needs to be able to stand up. Here’s a good example: I really want to make a football. I want you to walk into a gallery and have there just be a football on the floor. And it would be beautiful, like maybe it’s Louis Vuitton or Gucci. But I’ve made three of them and they’re just not the right shape. I’ll probably come back to it, but I’ve had people come into my studio and ask me why I think it’s not right, it’s just because it doesn’t look right to me. It looks maybe more like a rugby football or something. So I think something is a failure when they just don’t look right. It has to have layers conceptually and be aesthetically pleasing, there has to be a movement with the eye. And I like marrying pencil with acrylic paint or gouache.
I believe in failure and I have a lot of failures, which I think is very healthy. It’s just how I learn things. There’s a lot of acceptance in the studio and not beating myself up. But I have to have a personal connection to the pieces. I can’t make something that just looks good, there has to be something else there for me. And I also can’t make the same thing over and over again.
You already mentioned two works, but what else are you thinking about right now and what’s influencing your work? What are other ideas or projects that you’re tossing around in your head?
I have a couple larger sculptures that I’m working on. In one, I have a canvas on the wall with a floral pattern of pansies on it and the sculpture will be in front of it. This painting will act as a wallpaper against the sculpture. It’s not a backdrop, but for lack of a better word, it will be a backdrop and a domestic setting. I also have another piece I’ve been working on that is a white picket fence. Behind the fence will be this woven bassinet that will sit on the floor and have books in it, and there will be a hat hanging on the fence and a newspaper rolled up in front of it, as if it were a fence in front of a house. That piece is more about parenting in a really loose way that’s not as developed. I also have a broom that I made, so I’ve been doing some domestic pieces like brooms, gardening tools, aprons or house cleaning type objects that I’m working on.
This summer I’m going to Wuppertal Germany to work on a group show at Galerie Droste that Andrew Schoultz and Patrick Droste curated. The gallery has six, large windows, so I’m going to do a window display of themes about California. I’ve already made skateboards and surfboards and stuff like that, so I’ve been researching the gold rush and gold mining and looking at those wheelbarrows and train carts, so thinking about those things. Maybe there will be a stack of luggage and Rodeo Drive. I’m going to do a full-on paper skeleton sitting in a chair, which will be my next piece. I think it will be hard, but I’m really excited about it. That will be in this kind of hippie, Haight-Ashbury California vibe with like a Janis Joplin record leaning up against the chair.
How are you approaching history as a subject?
I don’t think I’m a history buff at all, I just like to pick and choose more specific things and people that interest me and then mix it all into the work. I like that word remixing because I like to put different things together and have these different conversations that maybe you wouldn’t see normally. But I have to be attached to it or else I don’t feel like it’s genuine. For example, Janis Joplin is a huge person that I’m influenced by. She was so talented but so insecure, so if you’re talking about the 60s, she’s my go to. I just really want to be honest and true and not make work that is disingenuous. I want to bring viewers as close as I can to my feelings about it.
What’s your studio practice like and what is it like balancing that with teaching?
When I first got out of graduate school, I didn’t want to teach at all. I wanted to just make work and have gallery shows, which I did and things were great. But one thing led to another and I slowly began teaching classes 12 years ago at California College of the Arts. Then later at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, TX and Sonoma State University. I’m so excited when my students have breakthroughs and they see something out of nothing. It makes me as excited as when I’m in my own studio working on my own practice. I just really enjoy giving back and being a part of this conversation, whatever that looks like. And honestly I don’t know if I ever would have made those flower paintings unless I had given it as an assignment to my students, so I think my practice and teaching go hand in hand.
During my undergrad at Cleveland Institute of Art, we were trained to always just show up in the studio and make work, even if it’s bad. Every bad piece you make will just get you one step closer to the next best thing. I am a maker and I get my answers through making. I just got a tenure-track position as Assistant Professor in Art at San Francisco State University. I come into my studio every chance I get, even if I’m wiped out, I just have to make. I have to, it’s something that no one and nothing can fill. No one can touch that feeling inside of me. It really just makes me alive. I feel like if I didn’t have that, then I wouldn’t be able to teach because then I wouldn’t have anything to give. So I have to come into the studio and make stuff, and then I have to go out into the classroom and talk about it. It’s a dual process for me. And I learn so much from my students. So I feel really lucky that I get to go to SF State and talk about art, and that I get to be a part of that conversation. It really helps my work and keeps be accountable.