Learn more about Maria Liebana
“I want to live the fantasy of excess. I want that decadence. I think through my artwork, I’m creating my own reality.”
It’s cold. The damp air drifts over the East River and tangles in the streets of Long Island City. Manhattan sparkles in the distance but I’m wandering through the lowlands on the west side of Queens. I’m caught in the middle. This is no-man’s land. I wander past the Show Palace on 21st Avenue. It’s buttoned up at two o’clock in the afternoon but will soon bust open to serve a few lonely gentlemen looking for a night’s cheap thrills. I thumb my phone, looking for the elusive side street that leads to Maria Liebana’s hidden studio.
A low red-brick factory building dominates the block. The doorbell protrudes out from the heavy door and bounces in the wind. It’s detached; suspended on a fraying wire and drooping down. I use two fingers and a thumb to brace the ringer and squeeze until a loud buzz signals me in.
It’s cool and quiet inside. A labyrinth of studios connected by brick-lined hallways muffles the echo of distant voices. I check my phone again and wander through the hallways looking for the basement. I duck low through open cellars doors to descend into an empty gallery space. The muffled sound of Robert Smith singing “Love Cats” and the faint smell of burning plastic draw me across the room to a half-open door on the other side. Beyond the door, I glimpse a burst of color. I’m about to enter a labyrinth of a different kind.
Maria crouches on her knees amid a tight grouping of brightly colored canvases. The walls around her explode with rainbows, pop culture references and glitter. Her textural work is three dimensional. It seems to exist at the border between painting and sculpture, denying affinity in either club. Everything is puffy and expanding. The room oozes a Day-Glo psychedelia that borders on maniacal. Maria kneels in the middle of her studio applying polyurethane foam sealant to a plywood board in a rainbow pattern. The foam expands on impact as it hits the wood. Its shape transforms into a biomorphic bulge as it grows to inhabit its fullest potential.
Maria is like her work, constrained by space but intent on full expression. Her tiny studio serves as a creative space and storage. The room packs it in, but the exuberance squeezes through. It creates a harmonious discord. Her eyes beam as she guides me through the dense studio, showing me the puffy rainbow paintings she’s been working on.
Things are simple and intuitive to her. She follows her feelings and looks for a way to embody them. Her big smile radiates an enthusiasm and an empathic sense of wisdom. She speaks from the heart when she talks about her work. She doesn’t try to wrap her thoughts in frilly justifications.
Everything about her seems ready to expand and fill up space. She needs to go big and she knows it. “I’m trying to scale it,” she says, “these last pieces I did, I have a gut feeling about them… they need to go big.” She shows me a series of miniature rainbow paintings filled with glossy color and expressive details. “I want more!” she says, “when I love something so much, I don’t know, It’s like a guttural thing. I want to devour it.”
Maria’s energy pulses through the cramped studio. The cool basement shimmers with her excitement. We talk about Kanye West, shopping, rainbows and what it means to overflow. Maria Liebana is a woman caught in-between. She’s stuck in the stratosphere but looking at the stars.
RA: Where are you from?
ML: I grew up in Patterson, New Jersey, but I never really fit in with the neighborhood. I was always looking for something else. I started listening to Bjork at a really young age and everyone thought I was crazy. But, I’m like, no, I love her. And then I go to Pratt, and I don’t really fit in there either. I never fit into either world. I don’t fit into Latino culture and I don’t fit into white culture. I feel like I’m floating between different worlds. I get to see slivers of the different extremes but, mostly, I’m in my bubble.
RA: I see all these pictures of Kanye. What’s your connection to Kanye?
ML: Kanye’s a creative genius. I love his music, but he’s an asshole. I always think about what I call “Kanye confidence”. I aspire to that. I love that he doesn’t give a shit. He’s bold. He goes for it. I would love to have that. I tend to worry so much about what people think of me, so I always admire people that are just out there. They just do their thing. Also, I guess I feel this connection to Kanye because I think he’s elevated the conversation in Hip Hop. I mean, just on a musical level. he uses a lot of sounds and art references that are new to the genre. He’s kind of defied labels or expectations. I identify with that.
RA: I see a lot of rainbows. How long have you been doing that?
ML: For about a year now. For a while, I was doing donuts, but then it turned into rainbows. I’m playing around with the forms. Everything is multi-colored, textured and drippy. I’m always thinking obsessively too. Like, do I make ten or thirty? Do I just overflow? But, that takes commitment, just to keep going. Overflowing takes commitment. Oozing takes commitment
RA: What does overflowing mean?
ML: Overflowing? Taking over. Quantity. I think of dollar stores with their dead stock. So much. Excessive. Like, I tend to overbuy stuff because I’m always afraid of running out. I overdo everything, or get obsessed. I want to indulge my obsessions, but then it can affect me. Like I either run out of space or I get fat.
RA: So, do you go overboard only with your work or with other things, too?
ML: Shopping. It’s so bad. I just love it. Like, when I’m sad or I’m on a diet, I shop more when I’m not eating a lot. I’m like, I can’t eat that, so then I’ll go online and shop. Or, I’ll look online for hours at stuff and then I’ll put it all in the shopping cart. Then I’ll just sit there and look at it and have that conflict. If I had lots of money, I’d just be shopping all the time.
RA: What do the rainbows represent for you?
ML: I don’t know why exactly I landed on rainbows. It’s an arch. There’s a religious component like the arches in Catholicism. It’s also a vagina. It’s a portal, it’s an entrance.… Will I find happiness at the end of the rainbow?
RA: What motivates you?
ML: It’s the fantasy of wanting more. I always want more. There is always the fantasy and the desire of wanting more. I want to live the fantasy of excess. I want that decadence. I think through my artwork, I’m creating my own reality.