CUTIE, 2018. Black marble, 8.75 x 8.75 x 11 in. Photo: Ken Kashian

Sweet Violence: A Conversation with Claire Lieberman

The American sculptor Claire Lieberman is well known for her installations in which she combines materials such as marble, Jell-O, and video. Her practice explores a range of dichotomies—for example, the dialectic between “the sublime and the quirky, desire and danger, indulgence and guilt,” as she points out. Lieberman is also known for her prints, photographs, and sculptures of toy guns in glass, which were recently included in a new book, Loaded: Guns in Contemporary Art by Suzanne Ramljak.

Lieberman has held recent solo exhibitions at Massey Klein Gallery, New York; the New York Studio School; Gebert Contemporary, Scottsdale, AZ; Hot Wood Arts, Brooklyn, NY; The LAB, New York; Marcia Wood Gallery, Atlanta; Seoul Art Center; and the Martin Art Gallery at Muhlenberg College, Allentown, PA. In 2018, she exhibited in “line of sight” at the Mudac Museum in Lausanne, Switzerland, which explored the world of firearms through the lens of contemporary design. Lieberman has received awards from MacDowell, Escape to Create, The Arctic Circle, and the National Endowment for the Arts, among others. She received a BFA from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University and an MFA with distinction from Pratt Institute.

BUTTERFLY MACHINE GUN, 2022. Black marble, 11.25 x 24.25 x 15 in. Photo: Jane Huntington

María Carolina Baulo: Most of your works approach sensitive themes of violence, as well as childhood and games in relation to that violence. Tell us about how you try to represent those concepts using a subtle, “sweet” presentation.
Claire Lieberman: Art is a strange attractor. The dialogue between creative producer and audience becomes a channel through which arguments are filtered and ideas are discovered and shared. My sculpture, installations, and prints explore how bursts of violence and emergent and fantastical assertions suspend the separation between what is imagined and what is real. The words “playful” and “provocative” serve as core themes in my practice. They highlight connections between innocent child’s play and games, and conflict in contemporary culture. Suppressed violence in play and notions of survival, which I’ve explored throughout my career, gain new resonance in our current climate. References to flowers and fleshy versions of grenades are a reminder of the body and one’s internal self. With buttons and convexities that a child would love to push, my sculpture is fun to touch and hold. I want my carvings to call up animated objects and adorable playthings. I am reflecting on the way children explore sublimated aggression through play. There are entire industries promoting the illusion that war is fun. A promotion on a popular toy website reads, “taking war to a whole new level,” while vintage collectibles engender dislocation through the blur of nostalgia. My sculptures refer to the body and its fragility in a complex world. They are elements in a larger, resonant collection of pieces that, set on floating platforms or spread out on the floor, become an active environment through or around which the viewer moves, experiencing a sense of enclosure and release. There is a kinetic sensation, as if the viewer has been transported to the inside of a video game and subsumed in states of action and play.

MCB: Black marble, glass, Jell-O, alabaster, videos, and rubber are some of the materials you rely on. Tell us how you choose them and why.
CL: I am drawn to the shiny, black, luscious quality of marble and the translucent quality of light in white alabaster. Stone exudes beauty and dense materiality. Seductive to touch, stone has a voluptuous and inviting effect, bringing to the surface the duality of matter and image. Jell-O really is the perfect counterpoint to stone. Though pretty, as a substance it’s completely unreliable. Its momentary sparkle is sure to collapse and wither away. Stone projects an eternal quality, a permanence, while Jell-O is ephemeral—the stuff of commerce, not nature. Jell-O molds, once a mark of high society, are mostly thought of now as a kitschy substitute for real food.

I sometimes use video for its narrative potential and as a way to show both how light plays on and through the molded gelatin, and how movement affects it. As a historical practice, carving alludes to monuments and collective memory, but in my work the physical act of removing stone is reinvested with muted references to conflict. I am attracted to source material animated by the imagery of games and competition. I am probing the aesthetics of violence as a way to understand disunity. That is where the logic of marble and its relationship to monuments becomes important. In an ongoing series called “Crystal Ice Guns,”I’m creating toy guns in glass based on curvy, even erotic, retro space guns. Glass is a precarious medium for sculpting something so closely linked to handguns. In this regard, my sculpture aligns with the practices of many contemporary artists who use space, time, and form to investigate cultural issues and connect with audiences well-versed in competitions and games and their eventual transmutation into real-life encounters. 

Hot Pink Desert, 2007. Jell-O, alabaster, Plexiglas, 2 videos, and rubber, 60 x 60 x 18 in. Photo: Tim Trumble

MCB: Hot Pink Desert is an interesting installation that illustrates how you actually use the materials: Jell-O, alabaster, rubber, and two videos interacting in space. You presented it first in 2007; tell us something about that experience.
CL: Hot Pink Desert presents viewers with sets of individually luscious materials that please and provoke. Jell-O and stone, an intentionally absurd pairing, sit side by side on a low platform in a grid of tiles. I created this piece to convey thoughts about our relationship to the land, urban/exurban development, and the use of water and natural resources. The sculpture, which lies horizontally on a five-foot-square base, is made of 112 four-inch-by-seven-inch rectangles of squishy rubber in vibrant pinks, actual orange Jell-O, perfect clear acrylic, black acrylic, and pure, white alabaster. The arrangement produces rhythmic, fluctuating patterns resembling strips of keyboards. Hot Pink Desert tickles the desert of our imaginations. In this flat expanse, ecological discourse and sculptural enterprise converge in a luminous interplay between material, idea, and form. White alabaster provides a subtle, sumptuous quality, contrasting the natural and the artificial. The two videos (on three monitors) show slow-changing hot pink and black and white images of searing desert views and swimming pools. Over time, the Jell-O shrinks and fades away as the tinted cast rubber tiles remain as a paean to the lost foodstuff. Viewers stoop and lean into the low platform to enter an imaginary world. The shortened height encourages viewers to adopt a child’s mindset—that is, an immersive place in which the forbidden world of touching becomes palpable. “Don’t touch” is a rule heard in museums, and it is this push-pull relationship with pleasure that underlies many of my projects. With physical proximity, viewers are on the precipice of the desire to destroy. 

I have a longstanding creative relationship with the floor or ground. The close-to-the-ground viewing perspective of children rolling (or crawling) around on the floor—touching, feeling, ingesting—encourages exploration. This is an essential ingredient in my work: viewers leave behind their preconceived explanations or discursive arguments and immerse themselves in sensate reception.

POPPIES (detail), 2008. Red Jell-O, black marble, and 2 videos, installation view. Photo: Cynthia Wang

MCB: POPPIES (2008) combines red Jell-O, black marble, and two videos in an installation which investigates the body’s exquisite vulnerability. Describe this process.
CL: In POPPIES, I am building on primary components of sensory experiences of touch, vision, and smell. Jell-O itself refers to the body’s susceptibility and strength. In a large room, I projected two videos on the wall of red poppy “fields” of cast gelatin and partnered the video with cast flower shapes made from 75 gallons of Jell-O. These sticky, quirky, massive red-orange volumes are scattered on the floor. Round, shiny black marble domes as centers seem to anchor desire as the gelatin flowers curdle into a viscous mess. Stone suggests a distant, geologic time, while video indicates a fleeting passage. Jell-O, its brightness followed by quick decay, evokes modern malaise. POPPIES explores dissimilarities between solidity and liquidity. An ecological discourse is contained within issues of personal memory, as it connects our vision of nature to early childhood experience. The use of Jell-O renders the interior of the physical self, as you observe. As the gelatin is traversed (in the videos), the experience of violence is suggested. Set to play on a brief loop, the videos flash by like memories—skittering, elusive, more absence than presence—as the stone bears silent witness. The videos reference viewers’ earliest recollections: glimpses of childhood years when aggression is expressed through what is experienced as simple fun. The Jell-O suggests childhood play as well—or its prohibition. The jiggly, wobbly, artificially colorful substance almost begs to be poked and prodded, but playing with one’s food is frowned upon. The process of making a designed form is ever present here. In an assembled collection, forms have assigned attributes that lead us to sensory response and beyond to discussions of violence (internal and external) and collective transformation. I am recognizing the body’s vulnerability, as you observe, and questioning if we have become inured to conflict. Destruction is seen so often through mediated lenses.

MCB: “UDBO Playground (Unidentified Dangerous Beautiful Objects)” (2017), your solo exhibition at Massey Klein Gallery in New York, fully demonstrated the relationship between violence, childhood, and the permanent tension between a powerful visual effect that captures our attention and the idea that lies beneath.
CL: In “UDBO Playground,” I am cultivating a link between our reminiscences of childhood by investing toy-like forms with an animated presence. Arranged like a tic-tac-toe game, these ballooning toy grenades and curvaceous flowers with titles like Star Fleet, Double Trouble, and Radio exude a sweet, playful quality. Yet collectively, they are anything but innocent. The pieces are rendered in highly polished black marble, their surfaces smooth and shiny, hand-engraved, or disrupted by projections. The effect is at once opulent and oppressive, suggesting the hidden menace of commonplace things. Despite the use of lighthearted source imagery, these pieces evoke brutality and destruction, giving form to the subject matter’s lethal beauty. Though resolutely fixed, the sculptures in my installations appear to run around, suggesting a built-in paradox: the hectic nature of current life rendered through immovable masses. This odd pairing—the solid yet tactile stone against the suggestion of disquietude in action-packed games—tries to reach audiences on many levels. I hope the sculptures are visually engaging, but I know they are restive. 

Instalation view of “UDBO Playground (Unidentified Dangerous Beautiful Objects)” at Massey Klein Gallery, 2017. Photo: Malcolm Varon

MCB: CUTIE (2018), BUNNY BOMB (2019), FLOWER (A.W.) (2020), RATTLE (2021), BUTTERFLY MACHINE GUN (2022), BABY BALL (VERGE) (2022), and BIKE STORY (2022) are all examples of pieces made with black marble, which seems to be one of your most beloved materials. 
CL: I love the physical experience of carving and making intimate decisions at each turn. I also consider the freighted history of monuments. Black marble is quite hard to work, but it polishes to a deep luster and allows precise detail, compared to the milky, diffuse qualities of soft, white alabaster. Black marble offers a release from the historical associations with which pure white marble is imbued. The juxtaposition of toys and bombs is fairly basic. At the same time, images conjoining children’s toys and explosive devices are all too present right now. They not only create links between attraction and repulsion, but give a nod to the aesthetics of violence. Yet one may experience pleasure and also recognize the lateral effects of conflict. BUNNY BOMB, for example, embeds innocent play with references to cached explosive devices. BUTTERFLY MACHINE GUN reveals stark connections between games and real danger. Beauty and disharmony combine in a fluttering symbol of innocence as it aligns with a devastating projectile facsimile of a heavy metal device. This dislocation becomes even more obtuse as industrialized equipment of conflict is separated (as in drones) from the people who activate it. FLOWER (A.W.), BABY BALL, and RATTLE all have knobs to grab. They are happy little forms with undertones of pathos and even—given their projections—sexuality. BIKE STORY is a nod to protective helmets used in battle, and—again—the body’s fragility, particularly in childhood, when brains are still developing.Considered as a whole, these pieces are a kind of arsenal in black marble—a grouping of sculptures that amuse, provoke, and simultaneously unsettle. 

FUNNY BALL, 2022. Black marble, 11.5 in diameter. Photo: Ken Kashian

MCB: Your last show was FUNNY BALL” (2022) at Martin Art Gallery. The show was named after one particular sculpture, part of a grouping of sculptures that explored the relationship of play to conflict in contemporary culture. Please tell us about this experience.
CL: My “FUNNY BALL” exhibitioncontinued themes of beauty and conflict. The central black marble sculpture of the same name is a sphere ornamented with raised discs. The piece seems to project the possibility of rays being emitted at any moment. It connotes a playful ball but might be a trophy or a robot, items associated with games and gaming. The installation format built on my exploration of the tensions inherent in play and issues of strategy and control. Ten sleekly designed sculptures hovered on an eight-sided polygonal platform, irregular in shape. The base seemed to float like a spaceship. The cluster of black marble sculptures functioned as an ensemble. On the platform’s surface, 18 irregular triangles resembled a complex of game patterns. While a grouping of related prints installed on a nearby wall alluded to giant playing cards, the roly-poly sculptures served as standees poised to advance and retreat. Is the dynamic game arrangement based on high-level tactical actions or on pleasure and unfettered fun? Spheres are present in a few other pieces, rendered as toy animal heads or active players in an advancing format. The portly little pals set up important questions: When does innocent play lap into discord, and do children (and adults) know the difference? What is the connection between play and issues of power and control? How do we understand the relationship between devices of aggression and the impact of their use?

Installation view of “FUNNY BALL” at Martin Art Gallery, 2022. Photo: Ken Ek

MCB: You also work in cast paper and linoleum relief prints—for example, SPACE BALL and FLOATING HIBISCUS (both 2022). Are you in an experimental phase with other materials and themes of interest? What do you have in mind for the future?
CL: I’m always experimenting with new materials to find ways to improvise and express ideas. My prints are partner projects realized with ensembles of sculptures and installations. Cast paper and relief prints, etchings, and photography help me develop ideas. But my prints chronicle or build on individual sculptural forms as well. There’s an intrigue to pairing video and stone—the combination is unexpected, and both are mesmerizing. I am working out questions about the relationship of environmental concerns to discord, both local and global. More broadly, questions of power and stewardship elicit questions about food security and sustainability. My projects are always suffused with references to the body. This is heightening my interest in future collaborations with movement artists. I’ve had the opportunity to go on one residency with The Arctic Circle and another on the Gulf Coast. The landscapes are different, but the ecological challenges are interconnected. I’m envisioning a giant cascade of Jell-O punctuated with mysterious objects. In the realm of my imagination, everything floats and is bigger. Scale is skewed, and enormous, heavy sculptures emerge and recede. Some drift on beach settings or ice floes, then bounce back into a playroom. That is the dreamlike state I am hoping to create next.