Karen Liebowitz at Rosamund Felsen

Karen Liebowitz painting "Skinning Leviathan." 2011/2012 Acrylic on the wall. 16 x 30’

Sometimes when we set up straw dogs to knock them down it is okay, because the rhetorical example needs to be made.

I looked at Karen Liebowitz’s new painting with a mix of emotions and with conflicting intellectual responses to the work, which is a 16 x 30′ mural of the skinning and de-fleshing of a sea monster by beautiful, strong, industrially-outfitted women. How do I think about the folkloric tale this artist tells (and it is one that she has been exploring for several years) and how do I fit it into what I think of as the ‘current conversation on contemporary painting,’?

Aah – and here is my straw dog. Here is my opportunity to rail against the narrow-mindedness of critics and academics who craft the narrative that we in the art world are all living. Here is my chance to hold up Ms. Liebowitz as “a braver artist, one who challenges the received wisdom about what painting can be.”

Except that she doesn’t (for what exactly is this received wisdom, and what would be her challenge? and why would she want this responsibility?), and she isn’t especially brave (anyone who makes art is brave, or foolish) and critics, curators and academics, when they agree at all, do not agree on a pat narrative of contemporary painting. (They might agree on lunch.)

So there goes my idea for a self-aggrandizing rant. Instead, I’ll simply share with you the pleasure I found in looking at Karen Liebowitz’ work and listening to her talk.

Liebowitz draws upon many elder myths for her paintings, and she approaches them as a secularist – with an appreciation for the structures that are used in religious and mythological tales, and with an understanding of the universality of the symbols.  Her large painting of the Leviathan myth has apocalyptic overtones, but for the artist it is tinged with hope for “a rebirth,” one led, in Liebowitz’ mind, by women, and specifically by women artists.

This artist’s practice has developed so that her characters are based upon her friends and colleagues, and this relationship with her models may have the effect of humanizing her paintings. She stated at her recent artist talk that “without the familiarity of love I would find it difficult to paint figures. I would not believe them.”

I wonder whether Liebowitz’ investment of her social milieu in her work places this artist in the context of social practice art? Admittedly, Social Practice as a field of study has limits that are debated hotly, and I have neither the degrees nor the time to sort through them. With that said, I do think that Liebowitz’ ideas of community are evident in her paintings, and even when one does not know of the relationship between painter and painted, the stories she chooses to illustrate seem to point to a larger culture, and a better one.

Also, I wonder whether through their inclusion in this loose federation of women artists her friends might find themselves somehow joined? I wonder if ones inclusion in a myth gives one the chance to dream bigger?

Liebowitz’ interest in advancing the role of history painting in contemporary practice shows in the scale of her paintings, her use of myth and allegory, as well as in the formal arrangement of her figures. Her tackling of political issues and social/cultural movements in her paintings is both time-honored and contemporary. This is what allegory does, it allows us to share our interpretations of current concerns by couching them in historical tales, and this broadens the debate from the specific (which become potential points of disagreement) to the general, where those who are not zealots can find room to agree.

I understand this work to have utopian dreams, and communitarian ones. I think also evident is a strong Feminist backbone; the women in Liebowitz’ paintings are agents of their own fates and, if one reads the painting, they also have agency in the fate of the world, and of culture: The women in this painting are gathering the banquet that shall be shared beneath the skin of the Leviathan, and this feast will usher in a new age, when presumably the means, the duties and the treasures of the earth will be shared with all.

Stories such as this, when painted straight, come across as stilted and didactic, and as nostalgically social-realist; under the cover of these ‘story paintings’ the artist can get all this hope and these lessons in without making us blanch at a fervent, earnest delivery.

It seems to me that Karen Liebowitz asks us to view her life – the artist’s life, and by extension our own lives – through the symbol-tinted glasses with which we usually only look at objectifiable transcendent documents and artworks.

Repeating my question from above, I wonder if being part of a myth allows one to dream bigger? I wonder if the currency of this work lies partly in its desire to effect change in our culture?

Karen Liebowitz, with Vanessa Conte and Nancy Blum, “Magical Thinking” closes at Rosamund Felsen on February 4.


Karen Liebowitz: Skinning Leviathan. 2011/2012 Acrylic on the wall. 16 x 30’

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