I-D, A studio visit with the incomparable Libby Black, whose handmade logo-heavy sculptures make us think deeply about consumer culture, by Austen Leah Rosenfeld, 11/13/2015
When I visit Libby Black in her studio on a quiet street in Berkeley, CA, she is wearing jeans, a denim shirt, and a denim jacket. "I'm pretty basic," she says, noting that her current outfit probably came from Gap or J.Crew. But don't be fooled by Black's appearance--she's an artist whose work deals with ideas of excessiveness, status, labels, consumption, and desire. Black is known for her handmade replicas of designer products. She's created a Louis Vuitton gym, Goyard/Chanel roller skates, and an entire replica of a Kate Spade store for a 2005 show at Yerba Buena. She also recently swam from Alcatraz to San Francisco.
Black's new work has been featuring other elements--still life flowers, books, real and fantasy items from her life. Newspapers and shoeboxes are recurring motifs ("My mom had 51 pairs"). Until tomorrow, Black has a show up at New York's Joshua Liner Gallery calledThere's No Place Like Home, which features a recreation of her son's tie (real) and a replica of a Vivienne Westwood trunk (fantasy). On the walls of her studio hang the covers of 1960s erotic lesbian novels with titles like Perfume and Pain, plus fashion spreads pulled from magazines. We chatted about excessiveness, desire, and how Louis Vuitton has asked her to stop making work.
What are your thoughts about the San Francisco art scene and how it's changing?
I think it's really sad. I teach a grad class and I said to them the other day, 'There has to be one place where you guys can live,' because they tell me about their rents and that they're not going to stay around here. It's disheartening to me that a lot of the culture here is really shifting. But there's a lot of great nonprofit stuff here that's accessible for people. This is where I want to be. I want the weather, the produce, I want to be with liberal people even though they're crazy sometimes.
Tell me about your current show up in New York right now.
So I make things out of paper, hot glue and paint. I also do drawings and paintings. Some things I own, some things I don't own, it's fantasy and reality. I remake everything out of paper. All of this stuff is a portrait but there's no person. It's like remixing an old song to make it contemporary and bring it to people's attention.
Why does Louis Vuitton always feature in your work? What in particular about the brand intrigues you?
I remember when I was younger, driving in Florida with my parents and my mom was looking for the guy on the side of the road with the blanket and bags. That was a big thing for her, to find this fake bag. Now she's older and has a real bag and a fake Louis Vuitton checkbook that she got. So I thought it was funny: this real bag she could afford, and the fake one, and does it even matter anymore? Those experiences really informed my earlier work.
Do you desire things like Louis Vuitton bags?
I wanted one. I don't so much anymore. When I wanted one, I made it out of paper and it fulfilled that need for me. If I had a real one I couldn't quite go there to use it. I'm just like, 'Oh you'll get it dirty.' When I made the bag I was like, 'It's not really about the bag, it's about experiencing the store and how you're treated, the whole 9 yards.' Making these out of paper is a way to talk about making a façade. We're accessorizing, these things can fall apart. Although the sculptures won't fall apart it alludes to not a solid material.
What's your interest in Janis Joplin? She also appears frequently in your work.
I've always been interested in Janis. I wrote papers about her in high school. She didn't really fit in but she had this great talent, she was really insecure and she was an addict. I did a series of addict drawings, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Janis. It's kind of crazy, addiction.
So you're interested in both consumer addiction and drug addiction.
When I first started doing this, the economy crashed and [it didn't feel right to make] this [luxury] stuff anymore. When I moved to Berkeley, I started using bumper stickers because everyone here has something to say. When I did the addicts I was like, 'What am I doing?' This is about excessiveness, it's about labels.
Are you an excessive person?
I'm a pretty basic person in terms of how I live, the only excessive thing is food. I want to buy nice food. I go to the store and I'm like, 'Jesus, I just spent 200 bucks on kale.' I like shoes but I won't spend over $250 on a pair of shoes.
Why are you interested in fashion?
I'm interested in fashion conceptually. I love Vivienne Westwood and her protest thing. I loved when Karl Lagerfeld did the whole store thing. It was more about the set, the props.
Do you think we'd all be better off if we didn't desire things?
I was talking to someone the other day about when you have that need to go shopping because you want to fulfill something inside you. I still have that need. I think it's OK to want. With the Louis Vuitton store, people would come in and say 'I hate Louis Vuitton' and leave, then people would come in who didn't like it but could enter it through my work, and then there were people who had the purse and love it and wanted to buy the sculpture. I'm very uncomfortable in the Louis Vuitton store but I can totally appreciate something beautiful. Vuitton has twice now tried to stop me from making my stuff. They called me down to their store and I was like, 'Oh my god, they're going to ask me to do a window display!' I was so young and stupid. I just kept making it. I had a little [legal] thing with J. Crew but Jenna Lyons actually ended up buying the piece. I talked to her on the phone and nearly fell over.
Chanel barbells, meticulously re-created Prada eau de toilette packaging, a Burberry punching bag and an entire Kate Spade store replicated from scratch - those familiar with the aforementioned sculpture and installations by Bay Area artist Libby Black might be surprised to learn that her approach is far from a cerebral spoof of branding in the modern world. Rather, it hews closely to Black's own upbringing.
"The work always was personal," she says by phone after work. She teaches painting and drawing at California College of the Arts. "I wanted these things and I was taught by my mom that if you looked good, you were good."
Her recent pieces, on display in "Libby Black: Nothing Lasts Forever" at Marx & Zavattero, seem to veer even closer to home. Witness the oil still life of full-blown and fading tulips perched atop Michelle Tea's "Valencia" and Dana Thomas' "Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster" (which happens to include a mention of Black's designer interventions). Or the pencil drawings of the Challenger exploding, a man in Darth Vader mask lifting his sweater and a protest sign proclaiming "I Can't Believe We Still Have to Protest This Crap."
"I guess since the economy has changed a little bit and maybe as I'm getting older, I'm shifting as well," says Black. The book "The Last Flowers of Manet" inspired her to do what she called "some basic painting. I started to think about what's around us."
"I live in Berkeley, so there's the luxury, too, to afford really good food. Buying fresh-cut flowers, that's a luxury as well, and adding books. ... There's a little bit more of a narrative," she continues. "The work had to change a little bit - I'm not one of those artists who makes the same painting over and over again. I get bored."
Black's concerns may have shifted - from sculpture to mostly flat work (though the show includes a paper, acrylic and hot glue sculpture of a Goyard bag crammed with an Acme Bread loaf, wine and seasonal produce) and from luxury labels to the ephemeral pleasures that come with a privileged lifestyle - but her feel for cheeky provocation remains: in the painting of a pantyhose crotch shot and the drawing of a victorious Martina Navratilova who seems to be sporting a kind of phallus.
Many images, if not drawn from life, are culled from European fashion magazines, Black says. "I'm drawn to the emotion," she explains. "I guess there's a lot of fashion, but it's not screaming anymore, like it used to."
The black-and-white pencil drawings shout softly, almost like roughly recalled newspaper clippings, sketched out and revolving around memorable people, things and events. One recent work pays tribute to Whitney Houston, whom Black would listen to in the car with her mother, and whose passing, intriguingly, somehow tests the stronghold of established taste.
"I loved Whitney and I was going to freak out when she died - you don't know these people, but you're in shock," Black confesses. "But I don't think a lot people would say that (they liked her). When I put that on Facebook, everyone was like, 'You've gotta be kidding me?' "
“Our lives are marked by monumental events and spectacular disasters...mundane moments, small pleasures, and frivolous distractions. The act of drawing and painting these images is an attempt to preserve moments that are already gone or to find meaningful connections between arbitrary things.”
I first encountered Libby’s work online, specifically, a 2007 sculptural installation called Work Out— a life-sized replica of a home gym that included a Prada stationary bike, a Louis Vuitton bench press, a Burberry punching bag and a Chanel weight belt, all made from paper, paint and hot glue. I thought the installation was hilarious. And I allowed myself to stay amused by it for a good while before I felt the need to consider it more critically. It’s nice sometimes to just think something is funny and not know exactly how to explain why. But the comedic effect of Work Out is interesting to mull over— is a gym funny? Are luxury goods or carefully rendered paper sculptures funny? No, none of these things make me laugh out loud (though sometimes luxury goods make me smirk from time to time)— it’s the convergence of these things that elicits the laughter. When our desires, indulgences, pleasures, and all the branding and products that capitalize on them are taken out of their usual context (and brought to let’s say, a gym!) a protective veneer quickly falls away and an element of the absurd is revealed, and we are forced to wrangle with how and why we consume, and why we ALWAYS seem to be in a state of wanting.
Recently, Libby has moved away from her earlier, more explicit explorations of high-end luxury, exclusivity, and the impulses of desire to investigate quieter pleasures in life, such as cut flowers and time to read. This work is much more ambiguous and subtle, featuring objects that hint at both an intimate personal narrative and a collective one— particular book titles, celebrity icons, and media headlines point to her own affinities and those of our culture at large, and ask us to consider how we string together events and objects in our lifetime to create meaning. With the works on paper and paintings she’s currently working on she’s also addressing the heartbreaking nature of time, and the fact that though we can revisit significant moments, we can never truly go back.
When we visited Libby in her Berkeley home studio she told us she grew up in an environment that promoted the ethos that if you looked good, you were good. Obviously, I think much of Libby’s work pushes against that notion and sometimes overtly makes fun of it, especially in some of her earlier sculptural installations. But, Libby also conceded that though she often approaches themes dealing with luxury, branding, and desire with sharp-edged humor and a healthy dose of mistrust, she recognizes that she is also just as susceptible to all the wanting. This push and pull in both Libby’s past and present work is what I think is most interesting— the simultaneous evocation of attraction and repulsion, loss and recovery, distance and proximity… holding all those opposing forces at once seems very real to me.
NG: What mediums do you work with?
LB: Pencil, acrylic, gouache, hot glue, oil paint, and canvas.
NG: How would you describe your subject matter or the content of your work?
LB: I remake high-end luxury goods out of paper, acrylic paint, and hot glue. I also make drawings and paintings. My current work is based on imagery culled from disparate sources like fashion magazines, snapshots, newspapers, pop culture websites, television, movies and still lifes that I have staged.
NG: In the past your work has explored luxury, high-end fashion motifs, and the excessiveness of desire and consumption— and your work continues to do so, but recently it seems more subtle and with shades of impermanence. Can you tell us about this shift?
LB: Yes, the economy changed and I also was getting bored with just making luxury goods (although I still make them). The new work is very exciting to me. Also everyone just thinks I make sculptures. In all the shows there have always been paintings with the sculptures. They play off of each other. I am a painter. My language is painting. The sculptures are about the paint and the pattern of the brand. I am interested in having the new work chart a path through personal history and a broader cultural context to explore themes of impermanence and identity. Our lives are marked by monumental events and spectacular disasters. I have distinct mental images that represent such experiences for me – things like the birth of my son or the space shuttle Challenger exploding in 1986. Our lives are also filled with mundane moments, small pleasures, and frivolous distractions. The act of drawing and painting these images is an attempt to preserve moments that are already gone or to find meaningful connections between arbitrary things. For me the still life in my work functions in a similar way. It is a staged collection of keepsakes and other personal items displayed with arrangements of cut flowers. Making the work is a way to take pleasure in re-creating attractive objects while also coding my identities (as a daughter, a lesbian, an artist, a mother, a dreamer, a fan, a lover, etc.) into the compositions. The still lifes are more about quieter luxuries in life— cut flowers, time to read, etc., and less about the more overt idea of luxury that I often work with in my sculptures. I’d like a viewer to look at my still lifes and recognize them as ‘time capsules’ in a way, and to experience a singular time in history in a really intimate way.
NG: Do you see your work as autobiographical at all?
LB: Yes, very much so. The new work more so than the old. Although the old always had my personal stories in it, but they were hidden by other things.
NG: Do you intend your work to challenge the viewer?
LB: I hope so. I like the subtle shifts in the pieces. Giving the viewer a starting point and letting it go from there. I have a dry sense of humor and a lot of my work is about poking fun at ideas of consumerism, branding, luxury, etc. and yet simultaneously embracing them.
NG: Do you have a day job? What is it? What does it mean to you?
LB: I teach at CCA. I really enjoy teaching and watching my students succeed. It is very exhausting and exciting at the same time. It is kind of like being in the studio. There are highs and lows and sometimes I have a student that has other issues that I have to deal with that have nothing to do with teaching.
NG: What does having a physical space to make art in mean for your process, and how do you make your space work for you?
LB: I have had a bunch of studios. Some at home, and some away from home. I have a new studio now that is attached to the house. I love it. There is nothing better then working all day and then being able to go in the morning first thing with a cup of tea and see what you did the night before. Or to go in and just put a layer of paint on something. Some people think you should not have a studio at home. I think that is not true.
NG: What are you presently inspired by— are there particular things you are reading, listening to or looking at to fuel your work?
LB: Flowers, books, perfume (Chanel N. 5), Whitney Houston, the relationship between Picasso and Francoise Gilot, good food, wine, Rod Stewart, and the color red. I am still thinking about Just Kids by Patti Smith. I read it years ago but I am still thinking about it. A lot of what I’m interested in is all about inspiring the senses— tasting, smelling, seeing, etc. Also, I think a lot about the cultural icons we have, and how we address them in the everyday and how the story of our icons gets told through media.
NG: Is there something you are currently working on, or are excited about starting that you can tell us about?
LB: have a couple different things going. I make a bunch of stuff and then see how things fit. I am still at the beginning of this newer work. It is like a roller coaster going up and down. I am mostly thinking about still lifes— sculptures and paintings of still lives.
NG: How do you navigate the art world?
LB: There are no rules. I can’t over think it. I just try and make the best work that I can.
I have always liked this saying, I think Dave Muller had it in one of his pieces I saw in New York at the Whitney Museum of American Art one year —“It is the same people on the way up, as it is on the way down.” I tell my students that. There is nothing worse then an artist with an ego!
NG: Do you have a motto?
LB: “Inch by inch life’s a cinch.” My mother told me that.
NG: Are you involved in any upcoming shows or events? Where and when?
LB: I have some work in a group show “Simulacrum” at the Columbus College of Art and Design.