Psychic Cherries: Into the Shadow World with Roz Leibowitz

Roz Leibowitz. The Bath, 2006, 13.5 x 8 in, pencil with paper piercing on vintage drawing. Courtesy of the artist.

Daria Tavoularis, my co-editor, met with serious resistance from her MFA program for focusing on the imagined and imaginative aspects of her work. One professor bragged to colleagues that if he had a pistol he would have used it at her thesis defense. I thought I was going to make my congenial reviewer at the Drawing Center studio program lose his lunch when he asked me what one of my drawings was about and I answered that it was a dream picture that shows how God loves the world. He told me I was lost—beyond help (in the nicest way, but still). These are just not things you are supposed to say out loud. But what if you really want to say them?

I recently wolfed down “David Lynch Keeps His Head” by David Foster Wallace. This is a long and appealing essay from the nineties about the making of Lost Highway, though Wallace also explains that seeing Blue Velvet with friends in grad school was an earth-shaking experience. He says that whether the images were “Postmodern or Expressionistic or Surreal or what-the-hell ever was less important than that they felt true.” By creating an aggressively imaginary work, Lynch was able to sneak up behind a bunch of clever, jaded, over-read writers and pinch them with something they recognized as real but could never have known without the help of this very film. The film gave them courage to make it through the rest of graduate school. The author in particular gained the courage to be honest in his writing instead of producing “avant-garde stuff that was really solipsistic and pretentious and self-conscious and masturbatory and bad.” In other words, the encounter with Lynch’s imaginary world helped make Wallace into the dense but friendly author he became. In a totally collectible phrase, Wallace writes that Blue Velvet’s images “rang psychic cherries in the communicatee.” What we are interested in here in our publication is artwork and anything else that rings psychic cherries.

My first delightful find in this hunt was the work of Roz Leibowitz.

Leibowitz makes pencil drawings on antique paper that borrow from the conventions of Victorian illustration. Her drawings are of women sequestered in an interior world by borders of their own embroidering. In “Lena” (on the cover), the diamond-patterned collar/border both encloses and radiates from the central female figure. Leibowitz is interested in the popularity of occult studies among Victorian women, who built for themselves a world apart from the one that existed for men: the world of “industrial/scientific philosophy,” in Leibowitz’s phrase, from which women were categorically excluded. The shining tiles or patches of stitching that make up the penciled borders of Leibowitz’s images enact the brick-by-brick assemblage of a world whose inhabitants set themselves apart.

Leibowitz portrays the efforts of these women as creating what she calls “conduits to the shadow world”—pathways that are still open to us today. Her work is an example of scholarly giving: she wants to help her viewers and herself become part of a just-dusted-off world of feminine imagination rather than blocking the way with an authorial injection into found aesthetic artifacts. She thinks of her drawings as “pages loosed from a long, dreamy novel,” using found ledger papers and pages from diaries to create a sense of the work as fragmentary—not the whole story. The blanks between the pages push us, the audience, to fill in the gaps, allowing us to enter the imaginative lives of her Victorian subjects. Leibowitz invites us to the door of that world and shows us the way in. As a former librarian, Leibowitz is still interested in getting people hooked into the story so they will take the book home and finish it themselves.

What I find really valuable in Leibowitz’s vision of Victorian womanhood is her scholarly rather than performative handling of Victorian decorative conventions. She engages in sympathetic, not revisionist, borrowing. There is a sense of respect for the seriousness and adventurousness of these past women that needs no revision by modern, with-it girl artists of today. Her handling of the elements of her drawings is not about progress, it’s about holding these old things up to the light. Her choice of drawing tool, the pencil, is an instrument of study, for note taking. The drawings are not tentative or sketchy. They hold the paper with authority. But Leibowitz is not going for the full kit of Victorian handicrafts, where she might try to outshine the originals, a kind of condescension that plagues other work that superficially appears similar to Leibowitz’s project.

Simone Shubuck, for example, is a talented producer of Victoriana, but her work always carries the imperative of fashion, something like “Try lace!” She uses some of the same decorative devices as Leibowitz—collar-borders, wreaths that form windows to interior scenes—but her emphasis is on her own command of the elements of this visual language, blocking the door to the imaginative world of those who originated the syntax. To be fair, Shubuck has a different goal in mind anyway. She is seeking the achievement of successful pastiche that allows her to use Victoriana for decidedly contemporary purposes. Walton Ford, on the other hand, makes revisionist Audubon-type paintings with such ebullient smugness that any question of the painter wishing to inhabit an old world is irrelevant. While Shubuck is at least fond of her source material, Ford doesn’t like the old world that much. (He is quoted in The New Yorker describing Audubon as “a total dick and not even that good an artist.”) Ford borrows to show how he makes better use of the borrowing than anyone else. The charmingly batty comic artist Dame Darcy’s persona/ output could be described as Victorian, but sexier, bloodier, and with that whole pesky repression veil ripped off. Ditto for Ford. The tension is in the racy revision.

Leibowitz is not doing racy revision. She has a collection of diaries and occult ephemera produced by Victorian women. She finds what those women were up to completely interesting on its own terms. If Leibowitz is a fan of Emily Dickenson, which she probably is, she knows that ripping the repression veil off the work of women gone by is not necessarily all that desirable. “Still! Could themselves have peeped-/and seen my brain—go round/ They might as wise have lodged a Bird/For Treason—in the Pound—.” What is required is looking and listening, not fixing. Leibowitz respects the wildness of the inner lives of these women who came before us and leads us to their escape hatches. She draws her power as an artist from keeping the door to the shadow world open, not making a new door she patronizingly assumes wasn’t there before she arrived on the scene, more than a century after the fact. This generous attitude rings psychic cherries between Leibowitz and her audience. This is a build-up rather than a tear-down kind of girl power. It is not fashionable. It is true.

–Kim Bennett

Kim Bennett was born in Cincinnati in 1976. She has a BFA from the Cooper Union and has lived in the United States since birth. She enjoys textile and culinary history, fat Russian novels and poetry. She is collaborating with the poet Chris Hosea on Oak, an elegy in drawings and poems. Kim makes indigo paintings in Oakland, where she currently resides with her husband and unborn child. She is co-editor of Article.

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