As a kid, Cary Leibowitz played with dollhouses and built things out of Legos. People told him he should be an architect, and he thought that sounded like a good plan. But then he went to study architecture at the University of Kansas and realized that wasn’t what he wanted to do. Along with building things, Leibowitz had always liked to draw pictures. So he decided he wanted to be an artist. And that’s what he became.
The Contemporary Jewish Museum presents the first retrospective of the New York artist’s work, which often plays with Jewishness, queer culture, and pop culture, as in paintings that say, “I just got a pair of Gucci for Bergdorfs loafers for 50 percent off and I really do feel better,” or a fish-shaped porcelain dish reading, “Fucked up homo bar-mitzvah gay boy worries too much about what his mother will wear.”
Leibowitz, who also goes by “Candyass,” enjoyed getting his MFA in Kansas, finding the college town of Lawrence exotic compared with what he was used to. He found inspiration in the work and writings of Robert Venturi, the Pritzker Prize-winning architect,known for his critique of modernism in “Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture.” Leibowitz says he still looks at a lot of architecture books along with the work of other contemporary artists.
“There’s a handful of people I really like,” he said, naming sculptor Jonathan Borofsky and artist Bruce Nauman. “The reasons I like them are very personal and it sort of depends on what hour you ask me.”
“I’ve never enjoyed having a show where it’s just stuff I’ve already made,” he said. “I tried to squeeze in new work, so I could enjoy the process.”
Leibowitz sometimes tries for humor, as with the 11 pink panels that read, “Stop Copying Me,” and are interrupted by a single panel asking, “Do These Pants Make Me Look Jewish?” but he says there’s more to his work.
“I like to think there’s a smartness to it,” he said. “I’m not sure if people give it that credibility. Everything is in the picture plane — sort of an analogy for a layer of truth. It’s not hidden in the shadows.”
Leibowitz is definite about one thing: Art is not therapy.
“Looking at art can be therapeutic and listening to music can be therapeutic, but those things aren’t therapy,” he said. “When I’m talking to my therapist, I’m not making art.”
Cary Leibowitz: Museum Show, Jan 26 – June 25, at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, 736 Mission St., thecjm.org/exhibitions/12#_ftn4