Libby Black processes the world around her by recreating it
SAN FRANCISCO—Libby Black Show Go back to this moment is really two exhibitions in one. On one side of the generously proportioned exhibition space of Gallery 16, the 106 drawings reproduced in his recently published book Some women are on display, offering the opportunity to compare side-by-side his pen and ink copies of images of women through time. These include many familiar, sometimes iconic works – from the Venus of Willendorf to a self-portrait by Laura Aguilar; Wyeth’s Christina’s world at Kara Walker Cut. This pandemic side project, completed between November 2019 and March 2020, is framed by Black’s deliberate inclusion of work not only by men and women, but also by queer artists and artists of color. His small but mighty images – designed to fit in a box on the kitchen table, a deeply personal investigation into art history – are artful, sometimes haunting interpretations. Black’s versions simplify his subjects into areas of wash, exploiting the deep, velvety blacks of ink to draw attention to important details, carefully lined with pen and brush. These are the notes of an artist, reminding herself and us to remember the lessons passed down from each.
On the other side of the gallery, a series of 37 works on paper are installed, unframed, on a wall painted in a soft lavender hue. These pieces – created by copying pages from the Sunday New York Times At Home section at individual scale, in paint and pencil – combine an uncanny fidelity of image with hand-crafted rendering of text. This method of translation gives certain images even more power than they had as photographs. In “Scenes From a Defining Era” (2021), for example, a character runs from right to left carrying an American flag rendered translucent by the light of the Minneapolis liquor store burning in the background, the accompanying text a ghostly white marks drift underneath. We are as transfixed by the image as Black must have been the day she opened the newspaper.
In front of the wall, a long table hosts a bare installation of six sculptures in cut and painted paper, Black’s signature medium. In the past, her pieces have often been adorned with the trademarks of famous fashion houses, although the objects she represents are probably never genuine designer products: a full-size Chanel canoe, for example, or a box of Gucci milk, or a set of Louis Vuitton gym dumbbells. Both bitingly witty and oddly ambitious, these sculptures embody the idea that if you look good, you are Well. Although a few older works in this vein appear here (a pair of Chanel lorgnettes from 2005, a Hermès coffee service resting on a Vivienne Westwood trunk from 2016), the majority of the pieces in this show date from the last two years and reflect the present moment of the artist, as a lesbian wife and parent, artist and teacher. These sculptures include a mesh grocery bag; a still life of stacked pots, pans and cooking utensils; and, on a nearby wall, a drying rack containing three welcoming socks titled “The Three of Us” (2021), with one sock each belonging to Black, his partner, and their teenage son. A pair of barbecue tongs included in the stack of pans reference an early exchange Black had with his future wife, in which the question “Who’s running the grill?” has been laid. Here read as one of the familiar symbols in a vanity still life – a candle, a skull – the pliers serve as a shortcut for both the passage of time and the ongoing process of sharing, balancing and changing roles that a partnership requires.
A nearby painting, exquisite in its simplicity, has the same kind of symbolic impact. Titled “Strangers to Ourselves” (2022), it shows a hairbrush filled with strands of silver hair. Her frank, if reluctant, admission of the passage of time places Black in history – among the women she portrayed in her ink drawings, rather than in the frenetically ageless world of fashion referenced by her works. previous. These pieces focus on work, rather than the luxurious aspirations of life, but are no less dazzling in their virtuosity.