Bonny Leibowitz makes site responsive sculptural installations with painterly sensibility – they hover in the air, spill on the floor, or sprawl on the walls. Her love of Baroque compositions, Abstract Expressionist gestures is underscored throughout her work. Bonny Leibowitz had a long-standing interest in the illusory nature of experience and the supposition of stability. In Terra Unfirma, her most recent body of work, she tackles what it means to deconstruct expectations and perceptions by using a variety of materials which play off one another – natural appearing manufactured, manufactured appearing natural – constructing environments which may feel ephemeral, eternal, fleeting, solid, light or looming at the same time. The artist refers to this quote: “Everything worth knowing is cloaked in paradox because everything substantial defies being revealed in its totality” – Mark Nepo
AS: You are from Philadelphia, went to school at Tyler in Temple University, and you are based in Dallas. Tell me about what brought you to art.
Bonny Leibowitz: From an early age, I had, what I might call now, a natural and unexplainable connection to art. I loved drawing and working with clay and my family environment was such that making art was not seen as weird or unusual, it was acceptable and encouraged. My pursuit in looking at work and studying artists deepened with visits to the Philadelphia Museum of Art and eventually museums in NYC. I did a lot of figure drawing in high school, loved the figure and I was absorbed in skill building. The connection was more toward the Baroque painters, especially Rubens, whom I still love and the Abstract Expressionists, especially de Kooning, before broadening my scope.
AS: In your extensive interview with Emily Burns at Maake you say that you combine processes which become new iterations. Can you elaborate on that?
Bonny Leibowitz: I see each series and each work as having grown out of some element or elements of their prior iterations. The trajectory might be based on some nuance or a material I am driven to explore further, or some combination.
The Impermanence Now installation, for instance, developed while pushing the potential I saw in painting on paper which later informed the series Light Weight, and so on. The painting on paper consisted of hundreds of large monotypes I was producing with encaustic wax on Masa Paper then inking with alcohol inks. Seeing that the paper, with these disparate materials applied, wanted to breathe and move, as opposed to lie flat, I began cutting, finding shapes, “weaving” and hinging into hanging forms.
The installation was realized at M. David & Co. during a residency where Michael David challenged me to fully consider the space. There I saw how viewers physically interacted with the work. This engagement, along with a desire to allow the work to speak more directly to form, helped push the concepts of light and weightlessness, focus less on color. I hung I Used To Live Here right at body height so that viewers could peer in and walk around the piece. The Tyvek took on a look of something one might find in nature; leaves or a nest perhaps, due to the way I scorched, inked and bleached each piece over and over, before assembling. I could see how “disguising” the truth of the material raised questions to what is “real”, which continue in The Big Nothing, Is Really Something series.
AS: Let’s look at The Big Nothing… is really something, your recent body of work. It seems to be more monochromatic and includes a stronger emphasis on linearity both in the drawings and the sculptural forms. What is your response to this observation and what is the genesis of this series?
Bonny Leibowitz: Yes, exactly, form and line are addressed more directly in this series. I have always had a deep connection to the Baroque powerful sense of depth and struggle of the body, but my influences can be varied – a ripped piece of metal in a Chamberlain, the weight of a paint stroke by Willem DeKooning, or a fallen tree torn and contorted by a storm. Although influences are everywhere, in this series, I tend to look at artists like Berlinde De Bruyckere, Kiki Smith, Eva Hesse, Diana Al-Hadid, Louise Bourgeois and Ursula von Rydingsvard.
The 8-foot drawing, made of water-soluble graphite on Yupo paper, hangs tight to the wall. It is comprised of many layers of graphite, erasures, washes, line and tone which give an illusion of depth to an otherwise completely flat work adhered to the wall, seemingly a glimpse into another realm. The title of the piece is One Homogeneous Mass – detail the word “detail” was added to the title as proposed by critic David Cohen, who rightly articulated that the piece is a glimpse of a far larger continuum.
In considering form, for instance, Viscera is hand sewn, made of scorched Tyvek, Vinyl, acrylic, unbleached Mulberry Bark and inks. It hangs from the ceiling at body height and I think of it as a skin which has shed, a shedding of beliefs, a tethering to the infinite. The wrinkles and hand sewn elements along with the Mulberry bark, directly relate to line, while the overall bulk of the work relate to form. The piece derived its origin from an out-of-body experience at the age of perhaps 11 or 12. I was upstairs, sleeping when I floated down to the living room couch where my Mom slept. I remember floating horizontally to be at the same level as her, next to her, hovering above the ground and finding a note from her, telling me she might not be here anymore. It felt real and I had to fight to get myself back to bed, back in my body. The referencing of body and floating play an important role in the physicality and forms of my work.
AS: In your text to The Big Nothing… is really something you say “bringing the formless into from as a portal to the eternal.” Can you elaborate on that?
Bonny Leibowitz: The works reflect my interest in exploring how I might see universal truths, consider and question perceptions, beliefs and habitual thinking. Working with physical materials to realize the concepts, allows me to explore what lies beneath.
AS: in Not This, Not That you are drawing on Goya. What prompted that and tell me more about your conversation with the master.
Bonny Leibowitz: While working up in the M. David & Co. space, on a piece with manipulated Tyvek; I received some great input from Michael David. He suggested, based on the developing qualities of the piece, an association with Goya’s Witches in Flight. Of course, I love Goya and took a dive into the visual structure of the piece, the looming floating nature, the quality of darkness, density and ethereal qualities. In Goya’s powerful and disturbing painting, we find three female witches flying in the air, while a male figure cloaked in black, completely covering his head and face. The picture has space without environment, no register of air, no atmospheric movement. The floating bodies, condemned souls, represent for me elements of the self, seeking understanding and acceptance. The male figure is that part of us hiding from our truths.
The works in this series are as much about their own presence and “object-ness” as their underlying narratives related to the bodily self and consciousness. Layers of acrylic, powdered pigments and ink on Tyvek, which I’ve manipulated with heat as a substrate, shreds which are then assembled as larger structures – all become evidence of the process. In the making of these works, I conceive of them as both physical parts and embodied thought, pieces of history falling away and the engagement of new experiences.
AS: What were you exploring in Artifacts and Remnants?
In Artifacts and Remnants, I utilized a variety of materials and processes: vintage and antique textiles alongside more contemporary materials; fabrics from second hand shops, kitschy oil cloth, glossy vinyl and foam; accentuating the paradoxical nature of the materials, like a historical timeline happening all at once.
The 3-d works – stuffed, sewn, painted on and collapsed onto one another can feel like a pile of laundry or paintings unhinged from their stretchers, becoming monuments to their former selves. I like the idea of adding my hand to history, altering these materials while touching on transitions.
AS: Plight of the Pleasure Pods seem to focus on sculpture as individual objects rather than the immersive environment in your later body of work. Did your work evolve from sculpture to installation and how do you see the relationship between the 2?
After the Plight of the Pleasure Pods exhibition, I realized the value of seeing how the works “spoke” to one another and how viewers engaged so do deeply. It sent me on a path of a more immersive environment, installation work. A timely exhibition, here in Dallas, at Conduit Gallery by James Sullivan helped me see how relationships via a variety of objects – a piece of ceramic, a chest of drawers with objects, a drawing, a huge sculpture – could all live together in an installation. It was extremely impactful and helpful in my moving forward. I see the 2-D and 3-D works as related and supportive to one another.
At a crit during Bushwick Open Studios 2019, David Cohen discussed my large drawing One Homogeneous Mass – detail in relation to Viscera and Stone Garden, the other works in the installation. In part, he likened the drawing to a movie in which we are thrown, initially, into the chase scene but come to know the story, through the “characters”; the other works in the in the installation, they exist as an indexing; speaking to content.
AS: You referred in several occasions to the relationship between your 2-d and 3-d vocabularies. Looking back at your work, from your early drawing/ painting to your objects and dimensional installations what do you think is your impetus to engage a physical space?
Something about the 2-D / 3-D, the thingy-ness of things and engaging a space feels more “real”, more essential to me in some ways, at least for my work at this time. Perhaps it’s because the works can relate to body and mind as a “place of existence”. Yet I know that’s completely absurd, that existence is much more broad and fluid than that; we exist in relation and in consciousness, such a place-less place can be more fully expressed as an installation, an environment.
AS: I love your how your explorations in each series both differ and build on each other. I am looking at Light Weight and at first glance its white airiness contrasts the dramatic colors and gravitational pull of Not This, Not That. Yet, I see them on a continuum. What is your take on that and how did you move from one to the other?
Bonny Leibowitz: Moving from one series and/or one piece to another is a continuum. Some of the connections I see in these works is a discussion around materiality, weight, light and bodily experience. Light Weight, for me is very much torso. Hanging it at torso level allows for a relational engagement. I heated and formed Dura-lar – yards of it, to create the structure. The many translucent layers become so dense in areas, that they become opaque and more solid. Although Not This, Not That utilizes denser, more solid materials such as manipulated Tyvek, I leave a lot of space and open areas to interact with the environment.
The poem This and That, from which I derived my title, speaks to content and form in a beautiful way:
You are hidden, you are manifest both
not this, not that, yet this and that
how can you be hidden when you’re eternally plain to see
– Fakhr al-Din ‘Iraqi, Mystic Poet 1213-1289
Etty Yaniv works on her art, art writing and curatorial projects in Brooklyn. She holds BA in Psychology and English Literature from Tel -Aviv University, BFA from Parsons School of Design, and MFA from SUNY Purchase. She founded Art Spiel as a platform for highlighting the work of contemporary artists, including art reviews, studio visits, interviews with artists, curators, and gallerists.