Kenneth Baker reviews Tom Lieber's exhibition "Wired" for San Francisco Chronicle

Painter Tom Lieber works his way out of tight spot

May 2012

by Kenneth Baker

Can a painter now practice without irony a style supposed to have burned itself out 50-odd years ago?

This question licks like flames at the recent work of Tom Lieber at Dolby Chadwick.

Lieber has long plied his own variant of Abstract Expressionism: improvising compositions with a briskness that purports to outrun conscious intention. The reminiscences stirred by a picture such as "Shift Red" (2012) - of Joan Mitchell (1925-1992), say, or Georges Mathieu - intensify the search for glimmers of parody or double-edged paraphrase in Lieber's paintings.

Their failure to appear puts a peculiar pressure on the viewer to decide whether Lieber can mean his work as he apparently wishes to - as the inscription of lived experience in an autographic gestural idiom.

The question goes far beyond Lieber's intentions to the historical and artistic context in which he acts on them. If those circumstances do not shore up or make room for the sincerity that appears to drive him, then his efforts risk looking naively decorative at best, self-deluding at worst.

Yet anyone who studies Lieber's painting carefully enough will come to feel that sustained dancing on the borders of mannerism must count as one of its accomplishments.

A close look into the tangle of brushstrokes in "Tip I" (2011) and "Surge" (2012) discovers some riskily displeasing color choices and a willingness to sacrifice masses of detail to overpainting.

The force of Lieber's art flows, then, not from its willed intensities, but from the way it shows us a painter trying to manage the uncomfortable, if not impossible, position in which his sensibility and historical circumstances put him. No wonder his hand travels as if trying to feel its way out of a tight spot, regardless of a working surface's dimensions.