"don't HATE me Because I'm Mediocre."

That's one of the first admonitions you encounter in the exhibition "Cary Leibowitz: Museum Show," through March 25 at ICA. Right nearby is a small tower of bubblegum-colored waste baskets decorated with pictures of a slightly overweight young man in a white, Saturday Night Fever-influenced suit, and the words "GAIN WAIT NOW" in a circus typeface.

Look up, and there is a frieze of red-on-pink signs that read "Stop copying me," with two in the center that ask, "Do these pants make me look Jewish?"  A little farther on is a blue plastic toilet seat with press-on letters: "I LUV THE BAROQUE."

"You're smarter than me — " says another sign, " — I don't care." Leibowitz takes a sheet of yellow-lined paper and writes the heading "Famous Jewish Baseball Players." His first entry: Pearl Bailey. There are banners that cheer on depression, with slogans like "Misery Rules," Life Sucks," and "Drop Dead." Also  pennants for an imaginary school, "Homo State," that read "Go Fags." Leibowitz presents a portrait of the artist as a messed up, Jewish, junior high, gay boy.

Leibowitz, who was born in 1963 and grew up in a Connecticut suburb, has been exhibiting his crudely made expressions of angst and enthusiasm since the early 1990s, initially under the name Candyass. This show,  originally organized by the Contemporary Jewish Museum of San Francisco, is his first comprehensive museum show.

But it's not so much a retrospective as an immersion. Leibowitz's signs and stuff from all different times are all mixed up. One does not see any evolution of sensibility or craft. Though it swings frequently from manic to depressive, sometimes in the space of a single painting, the overall mood is pink, kitschy, naïve, obscene, and celebratory. And funny, of course — in a Jewish and gay and art world way.

"You're not a real artist," says one end of a yellow panel. "You're not a real critic," says the other.

Leibowitz loves artists, as he proclaims in a large wall full of "I Love …" signs dedicated to a diverse group of mostly modern artists. He cites as a particular hero Philadelphia architect Robert Venturi, whose message that flat signs can convey as much meaning as complex constructions underlies Leibowitz's work.

His art is the opposite of precious. He buys ceramics and paints "Happy Homo" on the outside of the vase, or various terms for oral sex on the inside of the serving bowls — transforming them into perfect gifts for the gay weddings nobody thought they would be having.

There is a little teapot that says, "I feel sorry for Leona Helmsley," a small stuffed pig whose sweater reads, "What did you call me?" He finds a picture of the Rat Pack and labels Sinatra as Roy Lichtenstein and Dean Martin as Jasper Johns. He shows his work in bulk, and generally sells it for little, sometimes manning the cash register himself. (In his nonartist life, he works as an executive of the Phillips auction house.)

One of the quieter, more tasteful of his bodies of work are bronze belt buckles that commemorate nonevents such as the "New England Concrete Poetry Picnic, New Canaan, 1981," or, my favorite, "Alice B. Toklas Clam Bake Bake Sale Clam Bake, Provincetown, 1960."

"The defense I have always had about my work," he said in a 1990 interview that is quoted in the show's catalog,  "is that, all right, it may not be like genius stuff and it might not be earth-shattering and it copies a lot of other people, but it's a documentation. This is some guy who grew up in the suburbs in 1963 and some gallery is showing him."

I keep wanting to find more meaning in Leibowitz's cheap art of tacky overabundance. But perhaps it's best to view him on his own terms, as an artist who distilled the fears, anxieties, jokes, and joys of a moment in history. I will let one of his works provide the last word: "Attention! aLL art critics must wash hands before Leaving!"

Our games, ourselves

Costume-based works by Dusty Shoulders in “Tag: Proposals on Queer Play and the Ways Forward” at ICA.
Courtesy ICA
Costume-based works by Dusty Shoulders in “Tag: Proposals on Queer Play and the Ways Forward” at ICA.

Heeding that order, I walked downstairs to the group show "Tag: Proposals on Queer Play and the Ways Forward," which will be at ICA through Aug. 12. Like the Leibowitz show, this exhibition is about finding one's identity outside heterosexual norms, but it represents a different historical moment — the one in which young people are finding themselves now. The show is supposed to be all about play, though there is much more fun to be had upstairs.

"The current ways that bodies and identities are imagined, used, and discussed have brought us to a boiling point of anger and reaction," writes Nayland Blake, the guest curator who organized it. Blake proposes that by being playful, we can overcome fears and collaborate with others to reimagine ourselves.

The show includes an elaborate board game, to encourage people to tell one another their stories, a computer game, and a clay-animation children's program in which philosophical, big-lipped mushrooms and cute deer contemplate the end of the world.

Cupid Ojala has done a coloring book in which men have penises where there hands should be, which strikes me as awkward. Cliff Hengst writes placards like those  Leibowitz makes, though here they are called anti-tweets. "Thanks for nothing, Internet," says one.

The artist Saeborg Latex created the largest work in the show, a room-size inflated vinyl pig with suckling piglets. It is accompanied by a video showing the "butchering" of the plastic pig, including the removal of vast lengths of intestine. It's impressive, though I can't tell you what it has to do with queer identity.

But the most successful kind of play is something that is not new at all: dress-up. K8 Hardy has a fast-moving video of all the kinds of outfits the artist has worn over the years and what they might have meant. Buzz Slutsky's video on dressing up deals more directly with the artist's desire to blur gender. And Dusty Shoulders shows a series of costumes made mostly from found materials that have so much fantasy and panache that, at another moment in history, we might have called them gay.


"Cary Leibowitz: Museum Show" and "Tag" at ICA

  • Leibowitz show through March 25, "Tag: Proposals on Queer Play and the Ways Forward" through Aug. 12 at Institute of Contemporary Art, 118 S. 36th St. Hours: 11 a.m. -8 p.m. Weds., 11 a.m.–6 p.m. Thurs.-Sun. Admission: Free. Information: 215-898-7108 or icaphila.org