The Abuse of Beauty
New gallery uses old practices to make new statement
One of Lieberman's Sculptures (June 19, 2014)
Through June 30 at Gallery 1301
Charles Bukowski wrote "To do a dull thing with style is preferable to doing a dangerous thing without it. To do a dangerous thing with style is what I call art." If style has any role in art, it's to make dull things dangerous. Ed Lieberman, a Washington D.C.-based artist and attorney, paints and sculpts conventional archetypes with a style of brutality—and danger—that sets the tone for Gallery 1301's inaugural exhibition.
The new Charles Street gallery has joined the list of recently established gallery spaces supporting emerging artists. Opened in May, Gallery 1301 has a fresh yet sophisticated feel: glossy hardwood floors, the smell of wet wall paint, windows lighting all ends of the space. Walls sectioned at various angles create a dynamic space ending with an open, polygonal room, with niches perfect for small sculptures. The space is ideal for a multidisciplinary show like this. Paintings and sculptures alternate between walls and corners. The show has a clear color scheme—the all-blue paintings, complemented by the warm terracotta and bronze sculptures and balanced by a few black portrait busts.
In the center of the polygonal room, four black busts form a cluster, elevated to just below eye level. Two of the seven deadly sins—"Pride" and "Gluttony"—appear to be screaming from the depths of hell, heads turned upward to meet the viewer. Likewise, "Rigoletto," the cursed jester from the opera of the same name by Giuseppe Verdi, wrenches his neck upward, the bells of his hat captured midbounce. Oddly enough, the fourth bust in the cluster is "Chef"—a caricature complete with a hat and a bushy mustache.
This hellscape gets weirder. "Joe," an eerie, grinning head that resembles the vice president, watches the four sufferers from a niche in the wall. Although the bust's apparent namesake is relatively human for a politician, the sculpture embodies the paradigm of the politician through the emptiness in its eyes. On the other side of the room, "Soul in Hell," modeled after the famous Bernini bust, yells down at the cluster of twisting heads. On the tallest pedestal sits "Purgatory," a battered head atop a wooden box decorated with writhing bronze torsos. This appears to be a Dante-inspired, multilevel hell, inhabited by everyone from chefs to politicians. Religious and allegorical figures, such as "Madonna and Child (after Michelangelo)" and "Charity (after Bernini)," also face the sinners, serving as a force of judgment over the hellpit.
Lieberman endows his generic subjects—created in traditional bronze, terracotta, and oil—with a vivid sense of violence. "Boxer," a crudely rendered terracotta bust, is the most literal manifestation of this abuse—a smushed face captured in the moment of taking a hard punch. All of Lieberman's sculptures, in fact, appear to have suffered a beating. Some look more like their original form—a blob of clay, pummeled by reuse—than fully realized portrait busts. Even his religious subjects appear to have been abused. "Archangel Gabriel," representing a character traditionally depicted as a glorious divine figure, takes on the same gestures and distortions of a face midbeating, head swinging, eyes shut, lips pursed. The bust, cast in bronze, resembles the traditional Gabriel only in his curly ringlet hair—although this, too, is rendered with a ferocity.
This scene, set by the relationships between the sculptures, is far more interesting than the sculptures as individual pieces. They rely on archetype for meaning. Each bust is modeled to fit a certain caricature, or otherwise deviates from the standard characteristics into something more vague, but still without significant commentary. The aggression with which Lieberman sculpts his heads appears to be more an attempt to capture gesture than to interpret or redefine the subject's character.
Lieberman's paintings are more daring than his sculptures. Where his sculptures come across as simple character sketches, his paintings are more dynamic in technique and image. While they, too, depict typical subject matter—the female nude, mostly—they place more emphasis on the medium and less on archetype. The paint—all in blue monochrome—is used sparingly, leaving large patches of linen unpainted, as if there were openings bitten into the forms. "Untitled (Nicole)" features a frantically painted reclining nude woman, legs compressed to fit the frame. For a relaxed pose, it's a pretty uncomfortable image.
The seated figure in "The Examination" is particularly striking against the raw background. The forms are defined not by color or value—the piece is painted in one blue and, for the most part, one value—but by the texture of the brush strokes. A single, translucent stroke makes up each finger, pressing on the figure's cheek. Stippled marks form the hair, long streaks create the folds in the jacket. Easily the strongest piece in the exhibition, the painting demonstrates an awareness of the medium and the force of the pure blue color.
In "Michael," a stiff figure sits in a chair formed by a few dry lines, surrounded by a circular, Baconesque room. The face, again in the spirit of Francis Bacon, is disfigured by violent marks. The cool blues nearly thwart the discomfort of the scene, but the stark lines of the background and aggressive central positioning of the sitter affirm the anxious atmosphere.
In "Untitled (nude back)," a blank oval makes up a woman's thigh, resting on her deep blue calf. The coarse outline, vicious mark, and, of course, the color, evoke Matisse's "Blue Nude" at the Baltimore Museum of Art. The philosopher/critic Arthur Danto cited Matisse's painting as an example of what he called "the abuse of beauty." Likewise, Lieberman commits acts of visual violence against the beauty of the human figure, only his manner of abuse is, at times, overbearing. While Matisse replaced beauty with power, Lieberman essentially ignores it.
Oftentimes, style forms too consistent a pattern that whatever idiosyncrasies it intends to create become washed out. Nonetheless, the Lieberman show is a refreshing change as the Baltimore art scene continues to be populated by repurposed materials and non-figurative work. The show offers a return to academic roots—roots that are sometimes overlooked even by the local art institution. In this age where anything can be art, traditional media and subject matter can often ring a dull note. But in a constantly evolving art scene, old practices can form an important divergence. Gallery 1301 offers a space for such contrast to an artist community that thrives on differences. ¿