SAN FRANCISCO — Libby Black’s show Returning to This Moment is really two exhibitions in one. On one side of Gallery 16’s generously proportioned exhibition space, all 106 of the drawings reproduced in her recently published book Some Women are on view, offering the opportunity for a side-by-side comparison of her ink and quill copies of images of women throughout time. These include many familiar, sometimes iconic works — from the Venus of Willendorf to a self-portrait by Laura Aguilar; Wyeth’s Christina’s World to Kara Walker’s Cut. This pandemic side project, completed between November 2019 and March 2020, is framed by Black’s deliberate inclusion of works by not only men and women, but also queer artists and artists of color. Her small yet powerful images — made to fit in a box on the kitchen table, a deeply personal investigation of art history — are canny, sometimes haunting interpretations. Black’s versions simplify her subjects into areas of wash, exploiting the ink’s velvety, deep blacks to draw attention to the important details, carefully lined with pen and brush. They are an artist’s notations, reminding both herself and us to remember the lessons being imparted by each one.
On the other side of the gallery, a series of 37 works on paper are installed, unframed, on a wall painted a soft shade of lavender. These pieces — created by copying pages from the Sunday New York Times At Home section at a one-to-one scale, in paint and pencil — combine an eerie fidelity of the image with a bluntly hand-made rendering of the text. This method of translation gives some images even more power than they had as photographs. In “Scenes From a Defining Era” (2021), for example, a figure runs from right to left bearing an American flag made translucent by the light of the Minneapolis liquor store burning in the background, the accompanying text a ghostly white drift of marks below it. We are as transfixed by the picture as Black must have been, the day she opened the paper to it.
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In front of the wall, a long table hosts a spare installation of six sculptures made out of cut and painted paper, Black’s signature medium. In the past, her pieces have often been emblazoned with trademarks from famous fashion houses, though the objects she depicts are not likely to ever be actual designer products: a full-sized Chanel canoe, say, or a Gucci milk can, or a set of Louis Vuitton gym barbells. Simultaneously mordantly witty and strangely aspirational, these sculptures embody the idea that if you look good, you are good. Although a couple of older works in this vein make an appearance here (a pair of Chanel opera glasses from 2005, an Hermes coffee set resting on a Vivienne Westwood trunk from 2016), the majority of the pieces in this show date from the last two years and reflect the artist’s present moment, as lesbian wife and parent, artist and teacher. These sculptures include a net bag of groceries; a still life of stacked pots, pans and kitchen miscellany; and, on a nearby wall, a drying rack holding three homely socks titled “The Three of Us” (2021), featuring one sock each belonging to Black, her partner and their teenage son.. A pair of barbeque tongs included in the pile of pans are a reference to an early exchange Black had with her future wife, in which the question “Who runs the grill?” was posed. Here, read like one of the familiar symbols in a vanitas still life — a candle, a skull — the tongs serve as a shorthand for both the passage of time and the continual process of sharing, balancing and role switching that a partnership requires.
A painting hung nearby, exquisite in its simplicity, has the same kind of symbolic impact. Titled “Strangers to Ourselves” (2022), it shows a hairbrush filled with silver strands of hair. Its frank, if reluctant, admission of the passage of time places Black squarely in history — among the women she has represented in her ink drawings, rather than in the frantically-ageless fashion world referenced by her earlier work. Such pieces are centered around the labors, rather than the aspirational luxuries, of life, but are no less dazzling in their virtuosity.