"I like to think that my process is just experimentation," she says. "That's my favorite thing about art, is experimenting. It's like an adventure every day when you've decided to do something new, and like 99 percent of the time you fail but one percent of the time you make something really great."
Libeskind is a multimedia artist, who works on canvas and paper, as well as wood, found objects, moss, toothpaste and photos, all of which take up large amounts of space in her sun-filled workshop. She begins telling me right away about some of her artistic breakthroughs -- a recent skiing accident in Switzerland that badly injured her right arm and left her howling in a huge expanse of snow to ponder her life's purpose, and her undergraduate thesis from Harvard (she graduated last year), which was a series of paintings made with toothpaste on a scanner.
Already Libeskind has a lot of projects on the horizon and under her belt. In the spring, she exhibited at the young Chelsea post-postmodern gallery Hansel and Gretel Picture Garden, and she was a part of a group show in East London in May. From October 15 to 21, her works will be in Paris at a salon at Galerie Zürcher as a part of a program that introduces emerging New York artists to Paris and vice versa. She's also gearing up for a residency at the esteemed Watermill Center on Long Island, where she, along with Hansel and Gretel Picture Garden and the Street Corner Society, will produce a haunted hayride experience called NightScapes. It's an adaptation of Elie Wiesel's Night, in which the artists subject the audience to discourse between the American fall horror tradition and the Holocaust. It also involves pagan rites, satanic rituals, the rural landscape and bones.
"The idea is actually pretty radical," she says. The open house on November 11th, as well as an event on Halloween, will most likely not be for the faint of heart.
But then, none of Libeskind's work is. It is bold, daring, often explicit, challenging and controversial. She has a whole body of work exploring the topic of Christ's foreskin. In college, she produced an unconventional version of Hamlet that elicited boos from the audience for its irreverence. And then there's the Holocaust hayride... She certainly doesn't shy from conflict, but at the same time, her attitude is not at all contentious. Libeskind has a lot of loves. She loves the scanner. She loves Gerhard Richter. She loves America. She loves Europe.
"I love the world. I'm a world-loving person," she says.
Ideas are "super fascinating" or "very cool." She responds to the world like an eager student: with a highly curious and intellectual approach, and even humor, especially on her favorite topic, with which she is veritably obsessed: religion, perhaps the thorniest topic of them all.
Libeskind, who is Jewish, grew up in Berlin, until she moved to New York just before high school, when she started at St. Ann's, the elite Brooklyn private school for freedom-loving, arty academics. In Berlin, her father was working on the provocative Jewish Museum Berlin. Her grandparents were Holocaust survivors. These things alone are reason enough to understand her fascination with the Jewish experience, but then, she is just as enamored with Christian iconography -- not just Christ's foreskin but also medieval crosses and Catholic symbology. Right now, though, she's focusing on a "Jewish project." She recently came across a family tree that includes 33 rabbis and had an awakening to her rabbinical family history. She points to some sketches on the wall, the beginning of what will be 33 portraits of them all. If it works out, she hopes to exhibit it in the spring.
Other favored topics include technology, historical pop culture, Americana, sex, gender, race. But it's all ultimately about Libeskind herself. It's what she's intensely interested in, what she devotes tons of time to researching. Her studio includes shelves of books on these topics, a mini library. She collects junk upstate and makes it into mobiles or reformed totem poles. It is piled neatly around her studio. But more than anything, she is a "digital hoarder."
"My Internet footprint is probably a super dirty footprint," she laughs. "I just scour the Internet, just on blogs on like...breast implants or something bizarre like that. I have no fear. I love the Internet for that reason." She collects more than a thousand images online a month -- lots of nudes, lots of Nazis, but plenty of other stuff too -- and some will become pieces of a narrative in her artwork.
Libeskind likes to "maintain a healthy distance from the quote unquote art world." She doesn't want to be classified or reduced. Her work has been referred to as post-postmodern, the definition of which may imply a shift away from irony in art, but she shies at any sort of label like that.
"I'm a little more fluid. I think a lot of people look at my work and think, 'S&M and Bugs Bunny--are you being ironic?' And I'm like, 'Sure, if you want me to be.'" She smiles and shrugs. "The meaning is in the eye of the beholder, not in my brain."
Rachel Libeskind's NightScapes can be viewed at the Watermill Center on November 11. She also is part of an exhibition at Gallery Zürcher, Paris, from October 15 to 21.
Portraits of the artist by Lana Barkin. Artwork images courtesy of the artist.