Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 7 / 15 February 2018

Shtick shift

Fine Arts

Cary Leibowitz, I Love (1990). Latex paint on wood panel, 12 panels, 12x16 in. each. Photo: Courtesy of the artist and INVISIBLE-EXPORTS
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It has taken almost 30 years for Cary Leibowitz aka Candyass to finally get a major museum show. Despite a blah, frill-free title absent of fanfare, Cary Leibowitz: Museum Show, which contains nearly 350 mostly small works and opened at the Contemporary Jewish Museum last week, is nothing to sneeze at. The gay New York artist, who tilts toward barbed silliness and camp in mass-produced multiples, works on paper, and rueful, self-deprecating declarations ("I am a selfish and miserable person"), painted in childish print on solid-colored panels, has a neurotic Jewish, gay boy, borscht belt comedian thing going. It's shtick that could easily descend into a morass of adolescent pity-party narcissism were it not for the artist's mocking self-loathing and twisty, endearing humor. "I do think my art embodies a certain kind of gay sensibility," he has said, "even if it's the sensibility of an eight-year-old."

Nothing if not merciless in lampooning his myriad hang-ups, obsessions and sexual frustration, Leibowitz is his own target-rich environment. A carefully lettered placard, which looks like something that might be propped up outside an eatery, has a run-down of his inadequacies instead of the daily specials: "I'm a bad person; I'm superficial; I am fat; I am lazy; My friends should kill me; I should be shot," and so on. It may seem churlish to critique an artist as unpretentious and kvetchy as this one, and an amusing show that, on its surface, is self-effacing, good-natured fun, but the incessant self-regard can be tiresome and overly cute, and the material is awfully light and frothy. Confection is the operative word for parts of the installation. There's never been so much Pepto-Bismol pink in one place, and one can only hope never to see this much again. Having wandered out of the main gallery into an annex with an insistent pale-pink glow, from the walls to a series of pink geometric boards with hand-printed admonitions to "Stop copying me" (2001), I felt as though I had been trapped at a baby shower and needed some air.

The work is whiny, too, but in a good way, as in "If disco is dead, what does that make me?" or, "Don't hate me because I'm mediocre," and who hasn't wanted to sign up for "Schlock therapy?" Another panel asserts the painful reality, "U will always love Marky Mark more than me." Yes, by golly, competing with Wahlberg's abs when he was in his six-pack underwear-model prime must have been daunting. Then there are the occasional excursions into verse: "Roses are reddish, violets are bluish, Mrs. Henry Kissinger still doesn't realize her husband is Jewish," and, "If U ever go to Uganda, take your work-out tapes by Jane Fonda."

Cary Leibowitz, Sad Rainbow, Happy Rainbow (2007). Latex paint on two wood panels, 24x53 in. each. Collection of Amy Cappellazzo. Photo: Courtesy of Alexander Gray Associates, New York, NY

Leibowitz excels at snappy, hapless quips – think of the youngish Woody Allen in his loser schlemiel mode – more than he does at the visual art. The messages are inevitably catchier than the mundane objects they're written on, such as a pair of matching teapots, one reading "I can't do this," the other, "I can't do that," and "Wheel of Fortune (Depression Pennants, 1989)," which invites the "audience" to try their luck, except the choices are between "Life Sucks," "Misery Rules" and "Drop Dead." There are a couple of pieces on the pennant theme, and at first they appear to be objects that could hang on the wall of a boy's room, but Leibowitz, who had the double whammy of growing up gay and Jewish in suburban Connecticut in the mid-1960s, certainly wasn't your average kid. The bio of his early years – a fixation on Frank Lloyd Wright and high-society interior designers since he was a wee lad, and a peculiar pride in being compared to the anal-retentive Felix Unger of The Odd Couple – is either impressive or alarming depending on one's point of view.

Among the keepsakes from his precocious youth is an autographed publicity still of Liberace in full fur-caped regalia that the then-11-year-old Leibowitz requested and received from the performer, and "Bumper sticker self- portrait" (1990), a black & white yearbook-style photograph-collage inscribed with "Wanted: overnight meaningful relationship." One of his and my favorite creations is a teddy bear wearing a cheery yellow T-shirt that proclaims: "I will make a cubist painting someday but right now it is not important." Though intended as an indirect reference to the AIDS crisis, it sounds like the declaration of a budding artiste too preoccupied with more pressing matters to fulfill his destiny: to become the next Picasso. Watch out, world!


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