(Originally published in the San Francisco Bay Area Reporter, 1992)
A small sampling of work by New York artist Cary Liebowitz (stage name: Candyass) is currently on display as part of the San Francisco Arts Commission Gallery’s show, Real Tears. The homespun, obsessive style lodged deep in every object he constructs betrays art-market practices as well as the kinds of packaging of goods that we digest in our daily lives. Liebowitz explains how his seemingly straightforward craft is riddled with detours and a self-effacing acerbic wit.
Elliott Linwood: How do you make art?
Cary Liebowitz: Well, whatever I’m thinking about, I usually obsess on. I have a lot of work because a lot of things I’ll repeat over and over, just to keep busy. Once I come up with a good idea, if I have five different shows, I might make the same sort of sentence or phrase like say, “Fucked-up teenage gay boy,” or a short poem. I don’t really have any commitment to that idea of a “one-of-a-kind” unique piece. That idea really bugs the hell out of me.
Your pieces often include peculiar, subcultural catch phrases. How do you see your work in terms of popular culture?
I’m latching on to it and trying to join in. I grew up in this typical middle-class household where there was an idea that you didn’t want these cheap kitschy things from Woolworth’s. But luckily I got over that by the time I left high school. I started liking all those little things by then.
Because they’re really nice. They’re more interesting, and you get more for your money, so there’s the quantity factor. Instead of buying a $150 pair of shoes, I can buy 10 different key chains and still have $125 left over. And they do what I need them to do.
Everyone sort of likes them too. And, if you put these things in an art context, it’s an excuse for more people to like them. Because then they’re art. I don’t need a key chain, but I want to buy them. It’s kind of nice going to these stores and being able to buy them. A lot of the stuff I buy have better sentences or phrases than I could come up with! Some stuff I do make up, but it’s almost a wish to join in with the popular mass-produced type of thing.
There does, however, seem to be an unsavoury collapse of subculture into low culture going on now.
The most unsuccessful attempt at that was, I think, the “High/Low” show at MOMA recently. My friend, who’s an artist started asking, “Why were all those people who are always on the sidewalk in front of the museum selling African sculptures not give the project room for that show – especially when MOMA still idolizes Picasso and all the African influences on modernism?” They ignored what was going on right on their own doorstep.
What is your training?
I started in architecture. While I was growing up, I always thought I wanted to be an architect. I really had a pure interest in a domestic version of the American dream type of architecture. But once I started Pratt in New York, I realized this wasn’t for me.
Then I thought I needed to earn a living, so I switched to interior design and went to the Fashion Institute of Technology. I realized interior design in New York was entirely unbalanced and that the whole profession leads one to feel that there has to be something more than making lots of money to make a house beautiful. I just can’t have my personal life be entirely greed filled.
So I left New York and got a degree in painting from the University of Kansas. That made me realize people are the same everywhere. The art teachers in Kansas had the same ideas as the ones in New York. In the early ‘80s postmodernism and deconstruction was not even considered by faculties still devoted to abstraction. The whole thing was so totally trite, that I began using language in my work at that time.
When you are present at your exhibitions, do you think of it as performance art?
Not really. In a group show I sold cookies and pieces of my art for $5. In a show in Vienna, I treated the gallery like it was my studio, making stuff every day, pinning it to the wall almost like souvenirs.
For some people, this brings the value of the work down – seeing the person who makes the art or seeing that it’s as readily available as anything else in the world. They think it mustn’t really be art. I’m depressed by the attitude that if you can have it, it’s not that good. Art is like religion. People have tried to put it in a sacred category, removed from life. If it jumps over to an everyday function, very few people accept it.
What are some of your “high end” products?
I still do paintings because I don’t want to be left out of that activity. Collectors want to buy assemblages or room sections or stuff arranged by me. But they won’t buy the $25 football items I’ve made to include once they’ve got a prearranged bunch of stuff – or even give them away as gifts to friends when I suggest it.
So, for a couple hundred bucks, you could put together your own little Candyass corner, which is historically equivalent to the assemblage that the large collector acquires minus the artist’s intention?
It’s more the intention of the artist in my case, because of the level of personal participation involved. For instance, I try to do stuff like make the invitations or any other printed matter little art pieces themselves. Lately, I’ve tried to hit people over the head with this fact by putting little numbers, like one of five hundred, in the corner of the card.
What are you passing on to the audience?
You can only pass on what you enjoy. I’m not here to be a harbinger of bad news, and the kitsch stuff is just irresistible material. I’m certainly not dogmatic about what function art should serve. Some of my work deals with homosexuality and other specific issues.
It’s good to be able to voice these things personally. But I have a whole idea of quantity and how people have many layers to them. Recently I received a very nasty review, where I was depicted as this gay figure – pegged metaphorically as a kind of Paul Lynde in the center square of an art Hollywood Squares – because my work wasn’t activist enough for them. My activist artist friends and I actually trade work all the time. But that’s not the only message I have in my work.
What do you think about the art market’s reception to gender, queerness and identity issues right now?
I’m glad it’s there. There is a lot of people’s work I like. Sometimes, however, I think some of this work relies too heavily on metaphor for what it stands for. I’m often frustrated and made impatient by this.
I like work that’s more blatant. One reason is that it’s easy for me to make a piece that says “homo” on it, but it’s also a strong statement for someone who buys it to hang up or display in their home. The interaction is in this case seems deeper for the owner.
In terms of gender, I was asked to curate a show in a non-profit space in Connecticut recently, so I called the show Are You a Girl or Are You a Boy? I was playing with the idea that it’s kind of silly right now to try to figure out if a man or a woman made something according to how the artwork looks.