Serious Play: Claire Lieberman’s Unidentified Dangerous Beautiful Objects
Claire Lieberman: UDBO Playground (Unidentified Dangerous Beautiful Objects) at Massey Lyuben Gallery
October 12 to November 11, 2017
531 West 25th Street, between 10th and 11th avenues
New York City, masseylyuben.com
I can think of few sculptors at work today who have a greater respect for their materials or their craft than Claire Lieberman. She was the subject of a recent show at the Massey Lyuben gallery. The center of the gallery was dominated by nine sculptures carved from single blocks of black marble and placed waist high on white pedestals. The daunting regimentation of their arrangement in rows of three by three lent a sense of high seriousness. Together they formed UDBO Playground in which UDBO stands for Unidentified Dangerous Beautiful Objects.
Unlike so many contemporary artists, more concerned with the message of their work than with its material or form, Lieberman rejoices in the sheer, irreducible objecthood of her works, and that enthusiasm is infectious. It is hard to stand near them, each about the size of a large watermelon, without wanting to engage them—against one’s better instincts and art world decorum—in some tactile way, to revel in their absolute smoothness or even to lift them in order to assess density.
Lieberman is not an abstract artist. Each of these nine works suggests something that might exist in the real world. But at the last moment the sculptor pulls back from that hint of familiarity to render the objects alien and inscrutable. The title, UDBO Playground, provides some clue as to how we should interpret them. They are indeed beautiful objects that resist identification. At the same time, a sense of danger lurks about them. In addition to their unyielding density, several of them resemble grenades or the sort of generic bomb that might explode in a vintage Looney Tunes cartoon.
That association brings us to the other component of these works, the element of child’s play, but with little of its presumptive innocence. Often these objects recall the little metal objects in a Monopoly set or the trinkets that one might attach to a bracelet. In this respect they playfully resemble schematic flowers or children’s tops. Only one, shaped like a gourd, suggests something organic rather than machine made. All of them have been burnished to a degree of superhuman smoothness, although one work—a sort of oblong orb—does betray a few fleeting, consoling glimpses of rough stone on several of the protruding bosses that enliven its surface.
What is Ms. Lieberman up to in these UDBOs? In part she is invoking the inveterate game of the Minimalists as she plays with scale in tiny trinkets enlarged to the size of mid-sized mammals. At the same time, and more importantly, she derives from Surrealism an appreciation of the dreamlike strangeness of her objects, at once present and familiar yet inscrutably elusive, as well. And yet, overriding all of that, I suspect, is a deeper reverence for the pure materiality of the stone and also for that transcendental quality that stone, with its awesome permanence, holds for us evanescent creatures of flesh and blood.
While the nine objects in UDBO Playground made up the core of this show, it also included several of the artist’s prints and blown-glass objects. These latter, in particular, share thematic elements with the stone sculptures. They combine an element of danger—often resembling guns—with a sense of inscrutability and of play. Their spectral fragility played off against the density of the stone objects a few feet away.