In or around 1920 or '21 the painter and propagandist El Lissitzky painted a small, unassuming gouache picture for reproduction in a magazine or journal with the words "ROSA LUXEMBURG" lettered in, then painted over, to make a once-declarative statement (political solidarity with the case of Rosa Luxemburg) instead a quiet, self-effacing comment, though unintentional, about the absurdity of making art a weapon or tool of politics. El Lissitzky knew even back then, in another century, before Wikileaks or Edward Snowden, that he was trafficking in shit way above his head.
Both Lissitzky and Luxemburg were highly literate, Jewish, and, with Lissitzky growing up in Vitebsk, from slightly rural cultures. Cary Leibowitz is smart, Jewish, and from Connecticut. Here the similarities draw to an end. Like Lissitzky, though, Leibowitz has a tendency to make paintings that make bold, concise statements, written in the clear syntax of good propaganda, which can turn on a dime into self-deprecating, revealing "notes of a painter."
In the late Eighties, he virtually pioneered the "school of abjection" along with artists such as Kay Rosen and Mike Kelley, who used the painted word as an art form the way Woody Allen used film in the Seventies, combining self-analysis, Catskills humor, and a trenchant, deadpan hilarity of the sort that obviated the humorless, text-based art of the previous generation of artists working with language (Wiener, Kosuth, Huebler, et al.). Leibowitz is an intensely introverted, private person, yet his art would seem to belie this, giving voice to statements (which "work in line with [an] economy") such as "Sorry I thought you said spaghetti" ("Sorry I Thought You Said Spaghetti," 2013). A rather Tourettes-like sputtering -- like the awkward house guest saying "I hate spaghetti!" mishearing, perhaps, a more acceptable pasta offering. A sense of longing for connection, on either a personal or physical level, albeit a kind of desperate Looking for Mr. Goodbar kind, comes in the slice-shaped panel of "isn't it great you like pizza i like pizza" ("Isn't It Great You Like Pizza I Like Pizza," 2013), a bar pick-up line nuanced just this much above "Air? Air is great! You like to breathe? I Iike to breathe too!!"
The immaculate surfaces of Leibowitz's paintings, which often go unremarked-upon if not totally unobserved (indeed, he is such a practiced painter he makes it look easy), give visual form to the superficialities of the dialog. This plays against the deeper realms of the psyche that he both explores and exposes. Playing with form and semiotics, Leibowitz presents the disconnect we often experience more and more between what we hear and what was actually said. A kind of interpersonal Orwellian doublespeak.
Color plays a greater role in this work. In the past it was an aspect of Leibowitz's painting that either veered toward the decorative or was treated with offhand, aesthetic caprice. In (paintings and belt buckles), the walls are painted the same color as the panel grounds, in a color called "Sweet Taffy Pink" -- a nod to inane Ralph Lauren or Martha Stewart swatch book color names like "Un-Teal We Meet Again" or "Sea Foam Green" -- suggesting the seaside candy of tourist beach towns, a noxious, nostalgic treat that usually tastes like scented candle wax. The matching wall and panel color creates an effect of the pictures blending into their surroundings like geeky wallflowers at a high school dance. A calculated effect, no doubt, personifying in paint what Leibowitz actually feels sometimes in life. There is a fine line between art-as-therapy and mining one's internal life as material. Leibowitz manages to do the second with amazing results. At the Armory Show last spring, Leibowitz exhibited a large outdoor piece that read "I Need to Start Seeing a Therapist"; that would probably be a good thing for Leibowitz, but possibly a tremendous loss for the art world. - Bradley Rubenstein
Invisible Exports is at 89 Eldridge Street, New York, NY 10002.
Mr. Rubenstein is a painter, story teller, and smart culture aficionado.