It seems that any conversation about exhibited work in Rowhouse Project has an obligation to start with the gallery before being able to circle in on what is actually happening inside of it. Rowhouse Project is located in the Remington neighborhood of Baltimore, Maryland, a historically working class community that was significantly affected by the city's steady deindustrialization from the 1960s through today. Like in many neighborhoods of Baltimore, single family row homes make up the majority of available housing and, with a shrinking city populous, many are vacant, for sale, or perpetually supporting "for rent" signs. Rowhouse Project inaugurated its space there this summer with artist Justin Lieberman's latest solo exhibition in a way that suggests, in this environment, it might be impossible to separate the content of an exhibit from the context of it.
Entering through the front door, one finds odd arrangements in every corner of the unconverted but cleared out living space. An aesthetic of entropic home-life is shared equally between the gallery space and Lieberman's art, creating a grungy sort of harmony that doesn't quite register as a familiar art experience. Lieberman's strange body of work fills the house from top to bottom with 2D and 3D objects. The show ranges from casually assembled sculptures that maintain an interest in representation to wall pieces that incorporate ready made objects more heavily, with painting reserved for just a few, more provisional, notebook doodle-style pieces.
The most noticeable aspect of the show is the lack of restraint for selection. One repeated series is a Technicolor collection of blob shaped resin panels, each with an empty picture frame embedded in the surface. A piece separate from this series employs use of a similar structure, but instead collages only the leftover clear packaging from small toys and figurines in a mass mounted directly to the wall. Both pieces reference the language of cheap goods and home furnishings, but neutralize themselves by refraining from pointing to anything outside the subject of surrounding structures.
In the central room of the ground floor, the most striking object (and in the show as a whole) is a full sized guillotine constructed from scrap wood and letters from a "Pizza Hut" sign. A nearby sculpture depicting a miniature wheel chair at the base of a miniature set of stairs indicates that a particular brand of dark humor (rather than bleakness) links these pieces. In the upstairs, one room houses miniature constructions of "model studios." An attitude of bitterness is more apparent in a few pieces that point towards art market critique, including an effigy "Self Portrait as Bernard Buffet," that describes the painter who used suicide as a last effort to regain artistic relevance.
The press release proves to be a crucial part of the show and a defensive tone is set right off the bat, "For those of you who are bored by history and prefer that art exist in an eternal now of fascist bank lobby abstraction… I suggest you stop reading." Later pieces of this writing describe back stories to each piece before going on to reference the issues in bringing work to an economically depressed area like Remington. He admits that he doesn't pretend to "have clean hands these days."
In the installation of this show, Lieberman is at his best when he is able to use the domestic integrity of the house to cultivate an atmosphere in which I find myself as voyeur/natural historian in a public space that acts as if it were private. I am compelled to wade through his convoluted mind space and slowly reconcile the multi-impulsed work with itself. What appear to be last minute press-release justifications for a lack of curatorial restraint attempt to take this already complex object organization for use as a piece of an even more complex criticism regarding the contradictory, often selfish interests of "the artist." It's here where Lieberman attempts to use his own artist practice as material for a larger work in which he points towards the very notion of an "artist practice," i.e. following your whimsy, playing the game to get paid for it, acting like a mystic. Lieberman's gesture reads more like an uncommitted afterthought in the context of what already was an important, successful experiment of curating work in a space that could not be a clean slate. As valid as his self-consciousness might be, it is a burden too big to be carried by this show.