Jessica Lieberman: Becoming Visible
Rochester, New York
November 1–29, 2013
Jessica Lieberman’s Becoming Visible begins with an image that is one of the most intimate photographs in the exhibit and also the most disengaged. It is a composite of CT scans of the inside of the artist’s body that images the cancer that was attacking her. A photograph that follows—a stop sign in a hospital warning that all siblings must be screened for illness before passing—announces the entrance into a world where illness is redefined. Lieberman explains this in her text: “In 1998 I was diagnosed with cancer . . . the problem with that sentence is its simplicity; its certainty; its clarity. There is nothing in its linguistic container that at all represents my experience of illness.”
What follows is Lieberman’s journey to define and claim her experiences by using her camera to document and express her rage and extraordinarily painful fight with disease. She is not permitted to photograph in the hospital, so she steals her images, medical documents, and other clues that survived the removed and often inhuman medical processes that Lieberman also survived.
Beyond the rage in Lieberman’s efforts to claim ownership of her own image, there is also an earnest examination of the language of illness in our culture. Lieberman studies its words, symbols, and colors, as well as the objects it creates, and the environments it engenders. A series of documents lists the drugs she will be taking: Vinblastine, Dacarbazine, Bleomycin. The invented language of pharmaceutical drug names betrays a machismo that is common in many current public service campaigns that proclaim that cancer can be “beat” down if one is strong enough to overcome it. Lieberman’s response to that idea is to follow the drug pamphlets with an X-ray of her torso racked with blotches of white—like corroded plumbing pipes. The pipes are gently surrounded by the shadow of her bones and her skin and hairless pubis. The image is both repulsive and beautiful and describes the intimacy and complexity of her relationship to the disease that is often simplified in the media. This perverse intimacy is also present in a sheet of used nipple markers that Lieberman has reclaimed. Their shiny metal centers look like sequins, and there is a dark humor in the reference to the nipple tassels used by strippers.
Toward the end of the exhibit, a series of photographs of Lieberman’s face painted in costume with thick eyeliner and blue eye shadow plays with the same tensions. She is both a harlot and a Madonna, limp in the chemotherapy treatment chair, which is made of the same blue caked onto her eyes. There are no simple images of cancer patients here. Each series of photographs resists an easy read. By re-claiming her own image, Lieberman is also able to share the complexity and individuality of her experience.
Meredith Davenport is an artist and a professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, New York.