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Installation view of Cary Leibowitz’s ‘Nearly 30 year old stuff / Flowers in vases / Bowls of fruit / Fishes on sticks / Clipper ships / Kay Ballard / Nipsey Russell / And a few cocksuckers’ at Invisible-Exports (all photographs courtesy of the artist and Invisible-Exports) (click to enlarge)

Cary Leibowitz seems to want to make us laugh. He punctuates his current show at Invisible-Exports with handwritten phrases such as, “I love you more than Michael Jackson,” “stuff my butt,” and “your dick here.” The mirth he wants to elicit could be a jovial, delighted reaction, but laughter doesn’t always mean that; in its meanest manifestation, it conveys contempt. Indeed, when one wants to make a point of dismissing someone’s appeal, concern, or query as beneath notice, laughter is a more pointed rejection than silence. I’m thinking that contempt is at the root of Nearly 30 year old stuff / Flowers in vases / Bowls of fruit / Fishes on sticks / Clipper ships / Kay Ballard / Nipsey Russell / And a few cocksuckers, but despite Leibowitz’s claims to the contrary in the exhibition press release and the presentation of the work, it’s not self-loathing.

Humorous text in Cary Leibowitz’s ‘Nearly 30 years’

There is a lot of crude hipsterism to wade through to understand this exhibition. Clearly, the title is a provocation. It’s an inglorious inventory making the work displayed seem like a stock of items discovered by happenstance and then arranged in categories of visual semblance. At the end of the list, Leibowitz throws in a profane word to let us know he’s not taking any of this — the exhibition, the work, his ego, the viewer — seriously. Fine. The first time I stood in the small gallery space looking at the three walls that are the main parts of the exhibition (there’s also a small collection of similar works in the back room by the gallery office), I immediately noticed the textual interventions, and I suppose I smiled at them. However, the provocative phrases meant to signify gay identity through profane humor such as “homo,” “suck dick now,” and “butthole” feel misplaced. These phrases might seem incendiary in a small municipality outside of New York, but here the gay population is so out, so visible, and so crucial to the city’s culture that these jokes fall quite flat. Children might laugh at the “dirty” words, but adults will likely look for more.

Text work by Cary Leibowitz in ‘Nearly 30 Year Old Stuff’

There is more, but it’s couched in a kind of overdetermined insouciance. The whole exhibition is hung salon style, with the text pieces interspersed amid the other works, which, true to the exhibition’s title, consist of drawings of still lifes with fruits, flowers in vases, and playful drawings of very contented-looking fish. The works are all either acrylic on mat board, acrylic on paper, ink on mat board, or ink on paper. Some of the flower drawings and those of the fish are genuinely enthralling with their almost decorative delineation of form, particularly the black-and-white flowers. Drawn with thick lines and almost severe economy, they have a kind of elegance and self-assurance that brings Matisse to mind. It seems that’s not enough. Leibowitz makes the meta-discursive gesture which is very much of the moment of making sure the viewer knows none of this is in earnest. Much of the text work is written on torn envelopes, packaging, and flyers. I imagine Leibowitz appreciates that the gallery’s wonky wood flooring bolsters the entire show’s low-fi aesthetic.

A painted flower in Cary Leibowitz’s ‘Nearly 30 years’ (click to enlarge)

There is nothing wrong with this as a strategy for exhibiting art. It will be some viewers’ preference. However, the press release makes clear that the work being shown is archival, that is to say, safely collectible. So Leibowitz does want to sell, and his marketing is key to his sales. His marketed persona (including his adoption of the alias Candyass) is that of an artist who supposedly considers himself an outsider, ostensibly because he is gay and Jewish — in New York! Further undercutting this outsider narrative is his exhibition record: Leibowitz has shown at the Indianapolis Museum of Art and MoMA PS1, had an Armory Show commission, and has work in the permanent collections of the Chase Manhattan Bank, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, and the Jewish Museum.

The exhibition press release says that Leibowitz is practiced in the art of “self-loathing, interrogation and self-interrogation,” but none of this show reads that way. Rather, it reads as the work of someone who has developed a laugh track of canned humor because he thinks that’s the sort of show audiences want to experience. Whatever laughter gets squeezed out of this show is not generated by self-contempt, but rather contempt for an art scene that keeps asking for this dog-and-pony show of art cloaked in the politics of outsider identity.

Cary Leibowitz’s Nearly 30 year old stuff / Flowers in vases / Bowls of fruit / Fishes on sticks / Clipper ships / Kay Ballard / Nipsey Russell / And a few cocksuckers continues at Invisible-Exports (89 Eldridge Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through March 27.

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Seph Rodney

Seph Rodney, PhD, is a senior critic for Hyperallergic and has written for the New York Times, CNN, MSNBC, and other publications. He is featured on the podcast The...

One reply on “Cary Leibowitz and the Comedy of Contempt”

  1. Great review. I’d love to see more commercialized sophistries like this called out for what they are.

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