LIBBY BARBEE's colorful collages and interactive sculptures address the construction of landscape and the frontier myth of the American West with a nuanced attention to the psychological and cultural implications of place. She received her MFA from the Maryland Institute Collage of Art in 2011, and was recently an artist-in-residence at Platte Forum (Denver, Colorado). In September 2013, Barbee will present a site-specific installation at Howard County Center for the Arts in Ellicott City, Maryland. Libby lives and works in La Veta, Colorado.
OtherPeoplesPixels: What do you find compelling about Colorado? How has this place affected your work?Libby Barbee: You know, it is really kind of strange. I grew up in a very small rural town on the southeastern plains of Colorado, but it was not one of the beautiful, mountainous areas that people often think of when they imagine this state. I always spent a lot of time outdoors. From the time I was a kid, I loved science and everything creepy or crawly. But as an adult, I never really thought of myself as an “outdoors” person and never felt particularly tied to the landscape of the American West. Before relocating to Baltimore for graduate school, I had been working for a couple of years on a series of paintings about gender and domestic spaces. My work at that time was still concerned with place, but it was more figurative and all about culture. Having grown up in the land of horrible landscape art, landscapes were pretty much the last thing in the world that I was interested in painting.When I started graduate school, I fell into a serious creative slump. I no longer felt connected to what I was exploring in my studio practice. Even worse, I felt completely disoriented and claustrophobic on the East Coast. I had spent all of my life in a place where you could just look out and see for hundreds of miles in any direction. Suddenly I was in a landscape where I was totally dwarfed amongst all of the people, buildings and trees. It was just suffocating; I was dying to escape the place. On top of it all, I was experiencing some serious culture shock. I still maintain that people are people no matter where you are, but there are some very real differences between the attitudes and perspectives of East Coasters and West Coasters. It took some adjusting to.
Collage and charcoal on paper
OPP: How did your work change then?
LB: I somehow started making these charcoal drawings of this nude figure wearing a coyote hood. There wasn’t really any indication of the landscape in the drawings, but they had everything to do with this figure interacting with an imagined space. The figure’s placement and posture was very performative, almost as if it were performing a ritual or dance. Eventually these small drawings led to a large artwork that developed along one wall of my studio. It started as another of these charcoal drawings—the coyote-hooded figure carrying a grain mill on its back. I was at a point where this whole endeavor needed a push, and I began to add a rocky mountain ridge to the composition. I just kept adding page after page of paper until the drawing filled the whole wall. It was from this drawing that the idea of collage emerged. I had printed off some images of rock faces as a reference, but I got impatient. To speed up the process, I started cutting them up and taping them to the paper surface.By the time I was finished with this giant drawing/collage, everything that I had been thinking about, experimenting with and biting my nails over just began to gel. I started to become consciously aware of the importance of the Western landscape and all of its cultural baggage in the fabric of my reality. I was able to contextualize my connection to the West and began to understand the activity of drawing these charcoal figures—which before had seemed unconnected and inconsequential—as a performative act of re-establishing my place in and perspective on the world. The figures quickly fell away in my work, and the landscape became the central actor. I also became more and more cognizant of and interested in the role of the mythic West in the larger American cultural consciousness. Before going to the East Coast, I don’t think that I had really ever completely understood the enormity of the importance of that particular landscape and the symbolism that it holds as the essence of American-ness. It has been interesting for me to see how my explorations have grown organically from something very personal to encompass these larger spheres that are progressively more universal. I have been back in Colorado for about a year and half. Now I do live in one of those beautiful mountainous spots—a cute little town nestled below the Spanish Peaks of southern Colorado. We have small herds of deer that live in town and sleep in our front yard, and on cold mornings after a light snow, the sun sets the mountain aglow in a manner so brilliant you really begin to wonder if it isn’t nature’s attempt to imitate Thomas Kinkade. It has all of the makings for horrible landscape paintings.
The ranchers and old hippies here are left over from the communes that brought in artists from New York in the 1970s with the possibility of “dropping out.” It's the same desire, of course, that attracted the ranchers and the cowboys before them, and the miners and the trappers, and—going all the way back to the beginning of the American Frontier—the pilgrims. All of them had the hope of trying it all anew, wiping the slate clean in a place unencumbered by culture, undirtied by human rules, hierarchies and restraints. It’s all a farce, of course. There is not much free or natural or unconstrained left about this place. It is all broken up, parceled out and divided by property lines, fences and water rights. The forests are managed by logging and fire, and the parks get new trails every year. But it really is a beautiful illusion.
OPP: How is the Colorado art scene different from the Baltimore art scene?
LB: Baltimore is so full of energy. There is a really strong DIY attitude in Baltimore, and people just make things happen. You might go to see an ad hoc exhibition in someone’s living room one night, and the next night, you can see the same artists’ work in an exhibition at the Maryland Art Place or another well-established art venue. There are so many unoccupied buildings in the city that it is really easy for artists to find communal living spaces, studio spaces and spaces for all sorts of exciting exhibitions, performances and other forms of exchange. The whole scene is more about experimentation and the exchange of ideas than about sales or status. There is a lot of support for emerging artists.
OPP: I'd love to hear more about the creation of colorful landscape collages like Reimagining Bierstadt: Rocky Mountains (2012) and The Harvest of Particles (2011), which involve both collage and painting. Could you explain your collage process? Do you plan your compositions in advance?LB: A lot of my work begins with reading. I love to read about science and natural history; certain ideas just catch my attention. I’ll start out with a general concept or even a catch phrase and get to Googling. My husband swears that I am a research addict. Honestly, I don’t know what I would do without books and the Internet. I allow myself to be pulled along by the research, often discovering connections between ideas I never would have imagined fitting together. The collages are about synthesizing all this disparate information. Sometimes I do plan my compositions in advance (it is the smart thing to do, after all), but I am impatient. More often, I find a few images that fit the idea that I am after and that somehow have a life of their own. They become sort of like actors on a stage, and they often dictate the direction of the composition. It is weird, because sometimes I will completely eliminate them in the end, but the resulting composition could never have been created without them. As I start constructing the collage, I go through this whole back and forth process of finding images and creating paint swatches. The painting is great, because it is mindless and cathartic, and I can really concentrate on the audiobook that I am listening to. I drip and swirl and puddle it until I have a nice big stack of painted paper that I can cut from. Then, I try to match the printed images with the painted swatches, and when I can’t do that, I fiddle with Photoshop (which I hate) until something works. Once I am fed up with Photoshop, I go back to puddling and swirling. Amidst all this back-and-forth, are long hours of cutting stuff out with Exacto knives and gluing. Eventually it all just works itself out. It is a stupid process really, and sometimes I hope that I figure out something better.
OPP: What are your sources for your collages? What is your collection process like?LB: My collection process is really a hodgepodge of approaches, and I am sure it would seem like complete lunacy to anyone who walked into my studio and tried to make sense of it. Nevertheless, there is some twisted and confusing logic behind it all.
The process is constantly changing, and the rules of the game are different from piece to piece. Sometimes the process emerges out of necessity. I know that I need a certain color, texture, value, and I go out looking for that. More often, however, I set up parameters for myself: I only use images found by Googling a certain word, by searching a particular data base or by using images of only one particular place. I am obsessed with the US Geological Survey, and I can spend hours looking through images on the organization’s website. I am constantly looking for new ways of picturing the world, and I keep hundreds of photos saved on my computer in folders with names like piebald deer and icebergs.
OPP: How is the process of collage itself connected to your ideas about the American wilderness?
LB: We imagine nature to be pure, unchanging, timeless. Most importantly, we often define nature as an absence of human intervention. We see the human and natural worlds as distinctly separate. This has been historically important in a nation whose identity depends on the idea of the untouched/uncivilized landscape as the mechanism for political and spiritual purification and the creation of a stronger, better, freer nation.
But, in reality, “nature” and “wilderness” are cultural fabrications. Yellowstone National Park, for instance, is a beacon of American wilderness. And yet, its plants, animals and geology have been utilized and manipulated by humans for thousands of years. We identify national parks as “natural” spaces, but a lot of effort goes into maintaining them. They are an attempt to reconstruct a pure and unchanging state that never really existed.Collage is essentially the construction of cohesive images out of very incoherent parts. I set out to deconstruct images of landscape in order to reconstruct them in a new light. In one of the first works, I used photos of landfills, feed lots and parking lots to create rock faces. In another painting, I used one aerial photograph repeated over and over again to create a panoramic view of rolling hills and plains. I hope that viewers will move from the cohesive image to the incoherent parts and begin to think about the facts that are overlooked in their perceptions of the idealized American landscape.
Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based interdisciplinary artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the emotional and existential significance of participating in mediated culture in her embroidery, video, sculpture and collage works. She received her MFA from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (2006), where she will begin teaching in Spring 2013, and is currently a 2012-2013 Mentor-in-Residence at BOLT Residency in Chicago. Notable exhibitions include Losing Yourself in the 21st Century (Maryland Art Place, Baltimore), MP3 (The Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago), Please Stand By: Stacia Yeapanis + Readymade (Baang & Burne Contemporary, New York), Over and Over Again (BOLT Project Space, Chicago).