Libby Black: Nothing Lasts Forever

I caught up with artist Libby Black (NAP #67 and #85) at Marx & Zavattero gallery in San Francisco, where her show ‘Nothing Lasts Forever’ is currently on view (through May 26th). Black has carefully selected and curated the images in the show, mindful of how flower paintings can be associated with ‘Sunday painters.’ To combat this tendency she has injected a layer of darkness and playfulness into the show through unique juxtapositions. For instance, between still-lifes of colorful bouquets is one of a high heel shoe with a penis extending from the toe, a design by Vivienne Westwood. The placement of a woman’s crotch sheathed in nothing more than nude pantyhose next to a painting of a flamingo’s head instantly brings to mind the phallic nature of the bird’s beak. She says, “I really needed these other pieces [in the show] so it wasn’t just about flowers—it’s about life, death, and sex; mundane moments mixed with elevated things that keep you thinking. I like to introduce this other layer within the work, just to take you down a different avenue for a little bit.” - Read the entire interview by Nadiah Fellah, our San Francisco Contributor, after the jump!

Libby Black | Pantyhose, 2011, oil on canvas, 12 x 9 inches
Libby Black | Pink, 2012, oil on canvas, 48 x 36 inches

Viewers will see little of Black’s well-known sculptures of Louis Vuitton, Chanel and Kate Spade fabrications, and instead see a new body of work, almost entirely two-dimensional. The artist has chosen to work largely in pencil, and incorporates passages of gouache in some works. The fine, monochromatic lines with pops of vibrant paint serve to heighten the contrast of the works, which vary in scale from postcard-size to life-size. Between chatting about growing up in the Midwest and the perils of produce shopping in Berkeley, Libby described to me her artistic process, her sources of inspiration, and how the economy has played into the evolution of her work in recent years.

Libby Black | Untitled Bouquet, 2012, oil on canvas, 40 x 30 inches
Libby Black | High Heel, 2011, oil on canvas, 12 x 9 inches

Nadiah Fellah: Of the works in this show I was most drawn to the collection of small drawings (installation view). They almost seem like journal entries or something from a sketchbook, things that are more private and done in one or two sittings. Can you talk about the events that inspired them?

Installation view: Group of small drawings

Libby Black: These to me are the historic anchors of the show. I think the first one I made was Desert Hearts. It’s of a scene from a lesbian movie with the same name. This is an intense moment in the movie where the main characters kiss for the first time. I originally made this work really big and it didn’t work, maybe because it’s such an intimate moment, so I remade it as a smaller drawing. And it seemed right small. But I knew I wanted it somewhere in the show. There aren’t a lot of good lesbian movies but this one is really good.

Libby Black | Desert Hearts, 2012, pencil on paper, 7 x 10 ½ inches

Then I started to think about when I was in fourth grade and the Challenger blew up [Challenger]. We were watching the launch live on TV in my classroom. When it exploded, I still remember my teachers’ faces, like, “How do we explain this to these kids?” So that was the first moment when I realized that the world isn’t really what a child perceives it to be.

Libby Black | Challenger, 2012, pencil on paper, 6 x 8 ½ inches

Then you have Axl Rose singing ‘November Rain.’ I loved him when I was younger. I always remember the music video, and how weird it was that [his partner] Stephanie Seymour dies in it, and the way they showed her in a coffin at her funeral. And later Stephanie Seymour was with Peter Brant, a big art collector, and I think to myself, how do you go from Axl Rose to Peter Brant? Neither of them is good-looking.

Libby Black | Axl (November Rain), 2012, pencil on paper, 6 ½ x 8 ½ inches

Waco was inspired by the 1993 siege in Waco, Texas with [the religious cult leader] David Koresh. I was in high school at that time in Texas, just a couple hours away from Waco, so I remember it vividly. I included Birth because there’s so much death in the other images, and this represents the moment of life. I really made all of these images to be together, and to be in conversation with one another as flashes and snippets of memories and history. I see all of these moments together as a song or chord that has different notes.

NF: Looking at this selection gives a striking sense of who you are as an artist, and really serves to pinpoint your generation. But it also ties in interestingly with the flowers that are in a lot of the other paintings. So often when you see flowers you think of them as connected with some significant occasion—a birthday, an anniversary, a birth, a death—moments in time that together form one’s identity. Was that a connection that you were thinking of?

LB: Last semester I was teaching a painting class [at California College of the Arts], and I gave the students an assignment to get a bouquet of flowers and paint it, like in The Last Flowers of Manet. I referenced that book, and how Manet was painting flowers in the last days of his life, probably lying in bed. Then when my students brought in their work, they weren’t the best paintings, and I realized that’s actually what I wanted to do. And for a while it was a hard to think of making flower paintings, and how kitschy that is. But it also forced me to think of how I was going to make it relevant and personal. In the end it was something that I really enjoyed, and was important for me to do.

Untitled Bouquet was the first painting I made, and that’s like the Costco bouquet (laughs). After that I went and got really nice flowers for the next one I did, Untitled (For Jennifer). Then I started adding books to have more of a narrative, while still keeping it minimal. So in Purple Tulips the bottom book—Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster—is all about the market of high-end retail products and the reality of how they’re made. There’s also a reference to this Louis Vuitton store that I made. The book on top of that is Valencia by Michelle Tea, which is a really great novel set in the Mission. I was trying to give it another layer of context so it’s not just the flowers.

Libby Black | Purple Tulips, 2012, oil on canvas, 36 x 24 inches

NF: I think it’s an interesting transition to go from works that were dominated by luxury brands to cut flowers and this feeling of ‘nothing lasts forever’, because cut flowers are in some ways a luxury item precisely for their impermanence.

LB: Exactly. And they’re not alive anymore, so they’re constantly changing, the way that they die slowly over the course of several days.

NF: The one piece in the show that really merges these two themes is Goyard Bag with Produce; can you talk about how that came together in this piece?

LB: I did a little gouache painting in my last show of that Goyard bag with groceries in it. That piece screamed to me to be made into a sculpture. I’d seen the ad for this bag, something that you can actually buy—it costs $1300—and I always thought, who would put their dirty organic produce in such an expensive bag? So I thought this was a striking image to choose. And I just liked the way it looked together with the colors and the flowers. I also wanted it to seem as if someone just left it in the corner. I wanted all of the sculptures to be how you might naturally put them in a space, not on a pedestal or anything formal.

Libby Black | Goyard Bag with Produce, 2012, paper, acrylic & hot glue, 25 x 22 x 12 inches

Although I knew I wanted the Goyard piece, I generally didn’t include a lot of sculptures in this show because everybody knows me for them. I’ve always painted as part of my practice, so with this body of work I returned to the basics of paint. And with the economic decline it just didn’t make sense to continue making the designer items I was making before. My interests have shifted in the last couple years, and as I get older my views have changed. For example, I came across the source images for both Pantyhose and Pink in a fashion magazine, and I realized that it’s not about the [designer] bag anymore. It’s about wanting to make a simple, minimal painting. The same goes for Boy With Hat. He’s wearing a Dior hat, but it’s not about the [label] anymore for me, it’s about the mood or the feeling, and how that’s going to relate to other works in the show. That’s really more what I’m interested in here.

Libby Black | Boy With Hat, 2011, oil on canvas, 48 x 36 inches

NF: Gone Again strikes me the most intricate still life in the show, and in some ways seems the most meditative the way you’ve transcribed an entire page from the book Just Kids. How did you choose some of the items in it, and did it take you long to make?

LB: Gone Again is the last piece I did in the show, so there’s a little bit more in it. The book Just Kids is by Patti Smith, and underneath it is the New Yorker review on the current Whitney Bienniel. [My partner] Jen help me set this up. Choosing what information to include was difficult for me. I liked the history of putting in books, I liked having the layer of the Picasso book, and then having the visual components: those are Jen’s glasses, my Hermes watch, a pin that Jasper made for us with three flowers on it. I guess it’s also about searching for these things and compiling them, and really looking at what’s around your house. It’s like Dutch still life painting and kind of showing your wealth a little bit, so I was thinking about that. It’s also similar to the group of small drawings in the way that it’s very personal, and in some ways like a freeze frame of a moment in my life. I like that about it.

The pencil work in Gone Again from Just Kids took a really long time, but generally speaking, I like to work really quickly. Sometimes I make a work large and decide it would be better small, like with Desert Hearts, so figuring that kind of thing out takes a little bit longer. But I prefer not a lot of history on a painting, I want to hit it a couple times and then it’s done—I like that freshness. So that probably speaks to my method, and not letting a work become too suffocated.

Libby Black | Gone Again, 2012, pencil and gouache on paper, 43 x 29 ½ inches


Libby Black is originally from Toledo, Ohio, and also lived in Texas growing up. She received her BFA from the Cleveland Institute of Arts in 1999, and her MFA from the California College of the Arts in 2002. Black currently teaches painting and drawing at CCA. She lives and works in Berkeley. Nothing Lasts Forever is on view at Marx & Zavattero in SF through May 26th.

Nadiah Fellah is a curatorial assistant at The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA)

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