Disarming delight: Iris Gottlieb's Inventories and Observations

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Self-consciousness is exhausting. It’s such a drain to have to maintain one’s personality or to display a situationally appropriate persona as one moves from place to place over the course of a day. This is why we cherish those private places where we can let our guard down and especially those rare public places in which we feel comfortable enough to do so. Iris Gottlieb’s earnest pen-and-ink drawings of everyday objects, currently on view at Durham’s Carrack Modern Art Gallery through Feb. 9, provide just such an art experience.

Gottliebs labels favor whimsy over analysis.
Presented simply on butcher paper strips rather than under glass or in frames, the crisp drawings of Inventories and Observations provoke a kind of delight that makes you forget yourself and feel like a kid, breathless with unmediated curiosity or pleasure. Gottlieb’s up front about this in her show statement: “I’ve been to a lot of museums. I’ve yet to chuckle in any of them.”

Gottlieb’s hand possesses a couple of Edward Gorey’s digits next to a pair of fingers from a scientific draftsman. One of the three notebooks on display (which you’re thankfully allowed to flip through) contains page after page of carefully labeled protozoa. Gottlieb’s work could just as easily be found on pages of a biology textbook as in a gallery.

And there’s sleight of hand, too. Textbooks aren’t allowed to have Gottlieb’s sense of humor, which lacks even the slightest shade of Gorey’s gothic darkness. Even in “Windowsill Death,” a drawing of an expired fly on its back, tragedy is absent.

Part of Gottlieb’s feel-good absurdism comes from the combination of her DIY framelessness with pristinely drawn ornamental Victorian frames around her mundane subjects. The drawn frames are overly serious but the subjects can’t possibly be taken seriously. One wall contains around 40 drawings—some smaller than a playing card—of such drawings with clever captions that will make you giggle or groan.

In her half-Gorey, half-scientific hand, Gottlieb makes this paper clip somehow funny.
An unremarkable paper clip, centered within an oval frame pristine in ornamental detail, is captioned “This paper clip held together O.J. Simpson’s court papers” in tiny capital letters. A miniscule pellet a fourth of the size of a pinky fingernail stares back from within a diamond-shaped frame busy with tiny florets, captioned “This is the Swiss Miss hot chocolate marshmallow that gave Zac Efron his sweet tooth at age 6.” It’s fun to discover these one after another in rapid succession.

There are only a few abstractions on the walls, though plenty are in the notebooks, which give you the sense of how this artist has developed. Compulsive doodling, however, doesn’t completely describe Gottlieb, who places droll labels all over another series of object drawings. The tape roll in a tape dispenser is labeled “tape” and the little toothed metal piece against which you tear the tape off is labeled “will cut you.” Doodling is more of a reflex. Gottlieb brings intelligence to the table too, without rolling over into analysis.

Many young artists might tumble off that precipice and use such a frank style to critique the objects’ functionality and their underlying politics. It almost seems like Gottlieb doesn’t know about this precipice. She just walks right along the edge of it, toes peeking over, never falling off.

She makes us feel safe, too, on this edge. Sincerity does that.

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