Justin Lieberman: Agency (Open House)
Zach Feuer Gallery
530 West 24th Street
New York City
January 11 to February 24, 2007
Historically speaking, the emphasis on written language in works of visual art, whether it is done in a mocking, disruptive, or sculptural way, introduced a level of criticality that was not there before. If a visual artist decides to use text in their paintings, text unattached to representational imagery, they expose themselves to a dual system of judgment. Not only will viewers judge whether or not the imagery used is effective they will also evaluate the language component of the work. Are the fragments, single words, or sentences poetic, disturbing, or funny? Do non sequiturs strengthen an image, distract from it, increase the layers of meaning, or generate forced meanings and interpretations? Or even worse, are they simply artsy-fartsy?
Justin Lieberman uses text in his art for comedic purposes and to recontextualize, subvert, critique, and perversely celebrate the mass media environment we are submerged in from birth to death. The words he paints onto his painting/collages, posed photographs, assemblages, and appropriated and modified images can be read as graffiti, a defacement of the visual elements. It is graffiti in the sense that it is meant to redirect the intentions of the original images in order to point out the repressed content. He also injects an element of the personal into his appropriations by borrowing slogans and images from products he himself uses as a consumer. Lieberman is able to manifest his own neuroses, obsessions, and twisted humor in the context of the world of advertising and this provides insights into our conscious and unconscious immersion in the media. He uses his own image in many works to create an art world persona and to critique and investigation art world mechanisms. It is primarily a form of branding.
The tension between words and images and the handmade and commercially produced are recurrent themes. Although he has stated that he uses appropriation as a way of avoiding the obscurity of ambiguous forms, it is important for him to deface his appropriations in some way, to remind us of the presence of the individual. Playing the role of clownish sad sack, marginalized bohemian druggie, and manipulative careerist in various works, he reminds us of the art market’s reliance upon the cult of personality to increase market value. His face and body appear in many of his works. This suggests that the art making process is equivalent to the advertising or branding process. The art consumer demands the same sort of brand recognition that the average consumer demands when she/he is choosing a ketchup, soda, or aspirin. It is not about talent but who has made the art object. One work in this exhibition, “For Successful Living (diesel),” 2006 consists of a photo of Lieberman’s face, the Diesel logo and the blunt musings of a heartless, but also savvy and pragmatic art world careerist. This work has a dual edge because we don’t know how much of it is confessional and how much is theatrics. Is Lieberman the victim of the person reciting these words or letting us know what kind of person he is? The work is energized by the black humor of the text and the ransom note-like lettering.
“National Peanut Board” (2006), a series of six shrunken and copied subway advertisements with the original text changed from, “Why pay a therapist to get in touch with your inner child?” to “Why pay a rapist to touch your child?” transforms sentimental tripe into an unsettling and provocative one liner. In this series the source material was meant to appeal to our domestic fantasies but instead we are reminded of the monsters in the closet, the suppressed underside of family life. The intentionally drippy blocks of cheap acrylic paint that Lieberman applied over the original lettering draws a contrast between individual impulses, our instinct to leave our mark behind, and the slick impersonal format of advertisements, meant to appeal to large swathes of people and no one in particular. Perhaps Lieberman is a big fan of Philip Roth’s book, “My Life As a Man,” in which the ethics of psychotherapy are explored in horrifying detail.
A unique part of the three artworks that incorporate transparencies in light boxes in this exhibition is the artist’s use of electronic watermarks or signatures commonly found on digital images on the Internet. A faint, whitish “JL” is visible on each digital collage. Again Lieberman is treating his own identity, in this case his initials, as a brand name.
“Lexapro” (2006) consists of a photograph of the artist with a beard hunched over in a wheelchair clinging tightly to an opened umbrella while sitting on a train track, with a train racing towards him. The phrase “DON’T LET IT COME TO THIS” appears above the action and the Lexapro logo with the active ingredient listed below it appears in a white box in the lower right corner. According to the artist he uses or has used the drug. What looks to be a morbid spoof has a confessional element to it. This shifts the moral tenor of the work. Lieberman is not mocking the pharmaceutical industry for trying to push happy pills on us or those people who need them to get by, he is admitting that he also benefits from pharmacological therapy and perhaps wants to remind himself where he would be without it. The goal of an advertisement is to have customers connect with the generically familiar worlds they conjure, but Lieberman reminds us that these computer enhanced fables have a real impact on us. One is also reminded that one of the ironic side effects of taking the anti-depressant/anxiety medication is an increased risk of suicidal thoughts or behavior. So does Lexapro save us or kill us?
The apotheosis of Lieberman’s tendency to insert facets of his own life into found images is a collage located in the backroom of the exhibition, sarcastically called the Janitor’s Closet. “February” (2003) is a collage that includes a magazine cut out of a spread-eagled pinup with a crammed word bubble above her head. The handwritten text is a transcription of a break up letter the artist received from an ex. Juvenile and brilliant at the same time, this combination of the artist’s personal life and generic pornographic imagery emphasizes the ways in which our emotional lives, for better or worse, maneuver through the world of mediated images. No matter how shaped we are by the media we will always find a way to express ourselves, no matter how depraved our utterances might be.