Life is a struggle for meaning. Sometimes we choose the struggle and sometimes the struggle chooses us. In the new exhibition of paintings by Adela Leibowitz, Rites of Passage, we are presented with various mise-en-scene in which a certain existential situation, heavily reliant upon dreams and myths, is provided for our elucidation. Whether they are treatises on the nature of being and existence, or dramas to titillate and mystify, they recommend a set of aesthetic and ontological prejudices, engaging with the vicissitudes of a socially constructed reality while not abandoning more nebulous states of being. Formally, the artist covers new ground, introducing experiments with dimension and scale, working smaller than she ever has before, which allows her to focus upon the actions of her characters as much as the settings and details which surround them. They may become reduced to pale ciphers but their circumstances are no less important. External reality is never what it seems in Leibowitz’s paintings, because certain layers of metaphor complicate an interpretation of personal and societal readings, which would otherwise expand the work’s cumulative meaning from within.
The History of Sin is a cornucopia of combined dramas in a typically Hieronymous Bosch-like view of reality, in which multiple human interactions commingle with nightmarish scenes, all within an idealized setting, a pond in the middle of the woods at the bottom of a huge tree. In one, two naked girls enact a lover’s quarrel, one of them kneeling in submission and repentance while the other, standing with her back turned to the other, her hands crossed behind her, looks back toward her repentant lover either in pity or judgment. Behind them a family lounges around as if on the grass, when in actuality they are portrayed within or upon the pond itself, in a manner reminiscent of Manet’s Le Dejeuner sur L’Herbe or Seurat’s La Grand Jatte in which bohemian couples and groups enjoy a visit to the manicured gardens of the Bourgeoise middle-class. On the far bank, two women engage in a rather violent sexual act, animal style, with one woman endowed with a penis and her head looking like a ravenous wolf, and the woman on the bottom at the other’s mercy, her limbs sinking into the soft ground, her head turned to the side as if in mourning, the face covered with a shroud like the figure of two people kissing in his 1928 painting The Lovers. Beside them, two parts of different bodies are painted in such complete ignominy, the upper torso and head of a woman, only her head, hands, and breasts visible below a protruding pike, like the kind used by medieval kings to display the corpses of hated enemies at the city gates, or for showing the plague-ridden bodies of the recently deceased as a warning to itinerant travelers against entering a forbidden zone. Next to it lays the front leg, from thigh to hoof, of a horse or goat. Beside all of these, nestled within a copse of trees, lies a large woman’s head depicted in black and white, this being the corporeal presence of the dreamer herself, the artist in an alter-ego, or some idealized heroine. The head is scaled larger than anything else in the picture except for the giant tree above them all, which may seem to intimate its role as a point of origin, symbolically and mythically, for the “nature” of the humanness on display. It also infers Ygdrasil, the great ash tree that holds together earth, heaven, and hell by its roots and branches in Nordic mythology. Despite the jumbled quality of these scenarios within the larger setting, and despite the off scale of their depiction, we encounter them as we would the flitting images of R.E.M sleep, half glimpsed from between closed eyelids, or invading the brain from various image banks such as great art from history, pornography, and repressed memories or tales of them read in books.
SCHADENFREUDE (retitled as "Masque of The Red Death") depicts a large, ornately decorated ballroom with a black and white checked floor pattern and a high balcony above it, ringed by entrances with arches and cupolas. In the middle of the room stands a large shelf split into equally square sections, and within each berth stands a single woman. Every berth is full but there are a few women left standing in the middle of this very large room, while others gather on the balcony far above, watching to see what they will do. Like the childhood game of Musical Chairs, in which people walk around a circle of chairs, waiting for the music to end before dashing to grab a seat, always leaving one person with nowhere to sit. The social embarrassment caused by always being the one left out is strikingly similar to those unhappy souls who are the last to be picked for sports teams, the ones left sitting at dances, and the ones who are never asked out, left to pine on their own, dispossessed before having ever had a chance to succeed. The grandiosity of the shelf structure in this painting infers the endless tiers of a tower of Babel, or the stacked walls of an exhibition at the Louvre, each image no greater than any other. The fact that no faces are obvious in this painting, not of the players themselves whether caged or free, and neither of the spectators, shows us that its theme is not about individuality, but about the métier and the vicissitudes of a socially constructed game, whose only result is the realization that one never stop playing.
In ANNIE OAKLEY CLAN (retitled as "Ghost Town") we have a scene out of history and myth both. The setting is an anonymous Old West town, replete with blind shop windows, a stage coach, and a dusty main street only scant yards away from the endless American desert. At this point, however, the similarity to folklore and Hollywood movies ends, and a curious reversal of values intervenes on behalf of a need to perversely skewer traditional imagery. In the middle of the serene main street, along with a stagecoach bereft of horses or a driver, as well as the image of a fully clothed woman seemingly pining away for some absent hero, there is a large fire burning with twenty foot flames, around which stand or crouch a group of lithe and beautiful naked women. They are completely oblivious of the sad woman, and of any other implied narrative, or mythical drama, which such a setting naturally implies. Like cowboys sitting around a fire at night, they have a sense of repose, and an engagement with the hypnotic quality of the fire, which is assumed to be prototypically masculine. They are anti-heroines, typifying the tenacity of men, whose reliance upon temperament keeps them safe. Yet the statement here is a feminist one, a revision of sexually imposed standards of male-versus-female roles.
In THE LITTLE DEATH (retitled as "A Vision") we have what, in any other context, might be termed a domestic setting, but which in this instance is a statement on matters of existence. Two women stand at opposite ends of the same large room, an upper floor with atelier windows and wood paneling. The one in the background looks to be older, possibly a mother, governess or even a landlady, though she has a less-than matronly quality about her. Her type of dress is a generation removed from that of another woman in the foreground, whose girdle is less extremely buttressed, and whose style of address identifies her as more modern in sensibility. Yet the grimness of the older woman is matched in the younger’s expression of distraught horror. Leibowitz has painted her head of a sync with her body, as if she were undergoing a transformation which surprised even her. The disjunction of her mental state from her social surroundings, as if she were trapped in a moment of esthetic stasis.
THE MIDDLE SISTER (retitled as "I Dreampt I Went To Manderly Again") represents a transitional model from her previous body of work, in which psychological dramas are presented with the interior reality of the character either in jeopardy from, or psychically enhanced by, a comparison with the visual aesthetics of architecture, dress, and landscape. The setting is the English countryside, properly trimmed and lush, yet with everything just a little too neat, the lines too sharp, the flowers lacking color. The scene takes place in the wide front yard of a country estate, with the mansion looming in the background, mist rising in the early morning to make dew in the grass, and two members of the family looking at a figure in the immediate foreground, a young girl in a white dress who appears to have died in the weeds by the side of the road. The house itself represents the standard of Enlightenment thinking, nearly square, with every window exactly scaled to present a series of golden means. The women looking on from center stage are seemingly sisters, their strict decorum and similarity of dress the result of a familial responsibility to the manner of appearances. Their sister, the one laying wanly in the gutter, is perhaps the one who didn’t matter, whose role was neither as scion of the family or as younger caretaker, but as emotional filler for the dynamic between them. She has perished, like Ophelia did, for being typically irrelevant despite her own needs. In escaping her own reality she infuses it with a drama that is all her own, even if it can have only one final result.
In the paintings of Adele Leibowitz we are at first greeted with a world of fantastic happenstance and narrative that is divorced from the mean and the mundane. Leibowitz has the innate ability to connect with degrees of metaphor which have not been typically allowed into the interactions of daily life, which are usually buried under academic models of psychology or sociology, or repressed for being essentially metaphysical or perverse. Her images invade the real while they accrue meaning, giving us due access to both the language of artistic influence and the language of female reflection--a profound link to the sources of consciousness.