Rachel Libeskind, Transparent Things @Signs and Symbols

JTF (just the facts): A total of 10 photographic works, displayed unframed against white walls in the single room gallery space. All of the works are scanned collage on stretcher bars, soft PVC, and staples, some with additional painted silicone, acrylic paint, printed foam, and superglue. Physical sizes range from roughly 16×12 to 65×47 inches, and all of the works are unique. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: When artists really dig into their chosen processes, actively testing the limits of what they can achieve, sometimes unexpected innovations emerge from the persistent experimentation that open up whole new white spaces for exploration. Rachel Libeskind has been working with image collage for many years now, initially mixing in elements of performance and installation, and more recently trying out new ways to present layered fragments of imagery. A few years ago, she was intermingling pictures of body parts, at first mostly gathering shards of faces, and then later mixing images of antiquities with pictures from 1970s-era men’s magazines.

Flatness seems inherent to the structure of photo-collage, as images are appropriated, assembled,  and reorganized in a single plane, generally in dialogue with each other – what sits “behind” or “underneath” their visual conversation typically isn’t the point, except as a substrate to hold everything together. But Libeskind’s new works upend this traditional collage logic, introducing transparency as a compositional variable. In her “Windows” series, the collages are initially composed on a flatbed scanner and printed out on various kinds of plastic sheeting; the resulting sheets are then stretched over wooden stretcher bars (like the kind that hold canvas for paintings), creating works that show through to the structure underneath in the areas that lack imagery or that are so light (like skies in landscapes, or areas of white in certain pictures) that they appear essentially clear. And while this might seem like a relatively straightforward incremental artistic progression, it’s actually more of a fault line, given Libeskind’s previous efforts, as the transparency (and partial visibility of the scaffold underneath) radically transforms the available compositional possibilities of the collages.

“Windows: Eve (and the tree)” shows off Libeskind’s newfound powers most elegantly. The central image in the collage is a dark tree form, the black trunk and branches reaching out from the center toward the corners; the white negative space behind the tree is left clear, making the wooden struts underneath visible and creating a complex connection between the natural curves of the tree and the hard edged geometries of the stretcher, both in wood. To this interplay, Libeskind has added a single yellow apple (hovering near the trunk in the collage) and a female nude printed on spongy mesh and attached to the front of the work, adding layers of additional physicality and transparency. Seen as one integrated artistic statement, the Biblical Eve and the apple story comes through with unique clarity, with the apple strangely seductive, the woman demurely humble (to the point of near invisibility), and the tree looming large and imposing against the framework underneath.

Libeskind adds more compositional complexity in another strong work, “Windows: A Day in the Life”. Here she integrates half a dozen disparate images, with obvious awareness for how contrasts of light and dark would be amplified by the transparency of her process. Robert Frank’s image of a blowing flag in Hoboken anchors the bottom of the work, with the flag strips and open windows creating pass through visual opportunities. In the area above, Libeskind links a dense swarm of birds, a toilet bowl, an off-kilter one-way street sign, and an upside down face, with the birds connecting to the tile on the floor of the bathroom, and the matched curves of the toilet seat and face then echoing a set of three dark eggs (or ovals of some kind). The look down into the toilet bowl is particularly effective given the transparent backing, as the picture creates the appearance of looking through the collage and down into the bowels of the plumbing, which is framed by the stretcher bars.

The wooden undercarriage provides a similar layer of interruption in “Windows: Elvis (Hound dog)”, where the cross form of the struts divides the rock star’s partially transparent face. A boldly striped image holds down the lower left of the composition, while the upper part gathers several images in unexpected tonalities and textures, including a man up on an electrical pole (but upside down and negative), a natural image of grasses, a ghostly man washed out by a flare of light, and the negative space between two curved objects (in reversed tones). Libeskind’s works don’t seem to have a rebus-like puzzle code to be unlocked, but instead pull our eye around the surface, following formal and structural links; the transparency effects both integrate these ideas, and use the bars to divide and frame certain fragments.

Most of the rest of the works on view find Libeskind testing out the further possibilities of her transparency discovery. She tries out a literal image of a window, aligning it with the stretcher bars underneath, and experimenting with bright overpainting to disrupt the blocks of the panes. She uses the emptiness of cloudy skies as another pass through element, connecting darker horizon lines and landscape forms. And she plays with visual metaphors of eyes and seeing, using the transparency to variously layer and obscure. Libeskind has also noticed that the visible edges of the stretchers create a strong framing device, which has led her to explore the spatial dynamics of empty edges and centers, pulling away from the edges to break from the bonds of strict rectangularity. The transparency similarly rebalances the sense of depth and thickness of the collages, giving different frontal attachments and physical additions more potential for jarring displacement.

Agglomerations of appropriated imagery (much of it photographic) have an undeniable connection back to Pop Art, but Libeskind’s compositions feel less about recontextualizing celebrity or consumer culture, instead opting for more formal and allegorical investigations. Mostly, this show feels reaching and exploratory, with the artist leveraging the key transparency breakthrough in a range of alternate directions, searching for what clicks. There’s certainly more to be found, so perhaps these early efforts will later be seen as a pivot point, where the collage road forked and a new path was taken.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced between $4000 and $12000, based on size. Libeskind’s work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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