Institute of Contemporary Art presents ‘Tag’ and ‘Cary Leibowitz: Museum Show’ (first review)

Not all fun and games

Contemporary art often illustrates how we perceive the world and the culture in which we live. Of course, each new generation brings a new perspective. Just as our culture evolves, how people relate to that culture also changes. Two new shows at the Institute for Contemporary Art, Tag: Proposals on Queer Play and the Ways Forward and Cary Leibowitz: Museum Show, examine how cultural perspectives are changing and perceptions are shifting, influencing our sense of place in society.

Photographer Robert Yang's “Radiator 2” (2017) shows young men at play. (Photo courtesy of the artist.)

Tag was curated by Neyland Blake, a noted queer artist and educator from New York. The show includes work by 20 emerging LGBTQ+ artists.

Blake chose “play” as their theme because, they say, “Play awakens us to the possibilities in ourselves and in others that fear hides from us. In building a space for play, we make a space to come together and reimagine ourselves and our circumstances.”

"Breathtaking" range

The show is breathtaking in its range and diversity, consisting of paintings, photographs, sculptures, video installations, costumes, and constructed installations. These are occasionally bizarre and, in one instance, large enough to almost fill one of the spacious gallery rooms.

Perhaps the work most obviously relating to “play” is Robert Yang's video game stills. His images are colorful and vibrant, illustrating how young queer men can build playful, protective spaces for themselves where they can relate to the world on their own terms.

The pictures show young men, usually in some form of rest or repose. Sometimes Yang adds neon-bright graphics (though not always) to communicate a mood or an attitude. The spaces usually include video games or monitors, which serve as the portal through which the man connects to the outside world.

Artist Dusty Shoulders’s costumes offer an example of whimsy. One piece, constructed of — among other things — denim, bandanas, and sheer skirts, exudes wit and joy. A response to the timid uniformity of today’s mass-market clothing, it’s an expression of brazen individuality.

Cary Leibowitz's “Sad to Bored” (1997) depicts the moods of a highly relatable workday. (Photo courtesy of the artist and Invisible-Exports.)
Cary Leibowitz's “Sad to Bored” (1997) depicts the moods of a highly relatable workday. (Photo courtesy of the artist and Invisible-Exports.)

A super-large construction by Saeborg Latex (pronounced “cyborg”) shows a huge, pink, and (yes) latex sow suckling a litter of piglets behind prison bars. This playful scenario of nurturing is restrained in a confining environment, where its subjects ultimately await death. They are pigs, after all — the metaphor is easy to see. Nevertheless, it’s visually outrageous and must be viewed to be believed.

Tag’s engrossing display of 20 wildly divergent perspectives offers a uniquely contemporary take on relating to our world and making our place in society.

Signs of the times

Unlike Tag, Cary Leibowitz: Museum Show reflects the singular vision of one artist. New-York-based Leibowitz constructs pieces and installations that sometimes reflect humor but often also display somber alienation.

Museum Show is the first comprehensive solo exhibition of Leibowitz’s work to date, though some of it is an expansion of the show’s first iteration at San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum. It is perhaps more relatable and accessible than the larger, more ambitious Tag in that it reflects attitudes, emotions, and moods to which we can all relate.

Leibowitz uses familiar objects and materials, such as wood, ceramics, trash cans, and plastic signs. He repurposes them to reflect our inner dialogue as we try to navigate an often unkind world.

For instance, we see a plastic “business hours” sign, except every day’s hours are listed as “sad to bored.” What working stiff can’t relate? Pieces of wood are painted with the words “fat/ugly” or “please don’t tell anyone you saw me,” illustrating common feelings of insecurity.

But it’s not all gloom and depression. The moods and emotions evoked by Leibowitz’s pieces are as various and shifting as daily life. It’s as if the artist has a direct pipeline to our inner feelings.

To read Daniel Park's review, click here.

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