Artist creates mixed-media ‘gardens’ of composers

Barry Leibman’s work, “Dmitri Shostakovich.”

By Sarah Weinman, Special to the Jewish Light

“People are all much more complicated than what appears on the surface,” says artist Barry Leibman, 71. The same is true of his abstract mixed-media paintings that depict imaginary gardens of composers and musicians. 

These are featured in the exhibition “Imaginary Gardens: A Collection of Recent Works,” on view at Duane Reed Gallery through March 5.

A resident of St. Louis, Leibman started painting only about 30 years ago. 

“I never went to art school but, in 1988, a friend gave me a set of watercolors and something clicked,” he said. “My first show was in 1990.”

The theme of layers features prominently in his pieces. He is attracted to the emotional and intellectual depths in music, and these depths are reflected in the layers of paint, collage and canvas board in his work.

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Leibman adds and subtracts these layers until he reaches a point where everything comes together. Because of the physical weight of his pieces, he uses wood instead of canvas as a support.

“I can nail fabric and canvas board to the painting and don’t have to rely on glue,” he said. “I don’t worry about putting glass over the surface, or about the weight of the layers.”

The artist has been interested in music for a long time and has presented several gallery shows of work on musicians and composers. 

“The first group of works I ever did was on Mozart and his compositions,” Leibman said. “I had a strong feeling for a piece he wrote for the clarinet, and I followed the music with what I was doing on canvas.”

Leibman considers the life of the composer as well as the music when he produces a piece. The work titled “Dmitri Shostakovich” depicts a predominantly red background. Leibman attached black fabric to canvas board rectangles, which he layered so that they physically stand out from the surface. Their vertical arrangement resembles a tree with multiple trunks. Above the trunks are a series of brightly colored floral-print fabric swatches.

“As a painting comes to fruition, the music of a particular composer comes to mind,” he explained. “Shostakovich created profound music in the Soviet Union when Stalin was in power. He and his music often risked being purged or banned. The red and black suggested to me his individual struggle, and the fabric at the top (represents) the music he was still able to create under such duress.”

Beethoven’s music also greatly interested Leibman. To make the piece “Ludwig van Beethoven,” Leibman covered some canvas board squares with black fabric and others with white. He positioned and layered them to create a three-dimensional, generally symmetrical composition of more black at the top and more white in the center. He then placed six floral-print, fabric-covered squares in the center.

“In this painting, I wanted to make something intense but not too heavy,” he said. “That’s where the floral elements come in. This piece captures the feeling of Beethoven’s music in its solidity. It measures 45 inches by 40 inches and weighs about 45 pounds.

“Beethoven was deaf and yet composed some of the most beautiful pieces – that’s the mystery.”

Leibman’s exploration of mystery led him to novels and authors as well as musical compositions. 

“I’m drawn to mysterious fiction and mysterious musical compositions,” he said. “That’s the beauty of them. In my first show, I did pieces on writers such as Albert Camus and Samuel Beckett. I was involved with Left Bank Books for many years. Literature is in my bones.”

One series of paintings was inspired by Italo Calvino’s novel “Invisible Cities.” The novel tells the story of Marco Polo’s visit to China and his conversations with the emperor about the cities Polo visited. As a result, Leibman’s pieces represent his ideas about location.

Like every creative person, Leibman shuttles between finding success and encountering obstacles in his work. 

“There are times when you have a sense that you’ve hit on something. That’s a wonderful feeling,” he said. “What’s challenging is doing something better and more meaningful. Although the effort of that can be daunting when it isn’t working, you want to keep going whether it’s successful or not.”