Los Angeles

Charles LaBelle

Robert Berman Gallery

Part guinea pig and pack rat, private eye, and military strategist, Charles LaBelle is an oddball cartographer whose projects map the mismatches and overlaps of various approaches to factual documentation. His latest installation broke down into three groups of work that added up to a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Collectively titled Colonies II, 1993, his constellation of fabricated and found objects consisted of discarded mattresses, abandoned sofa cushions, innumerable pushpins, documentary photographs, and a silent video. The young, L.A.–based artist’s installation brought acupuncture, a traditional Christmas ritual, homelessness, and military campaigns into an uneasy, troubling, conjunction.

Under LaBelle’s influence, each of these seemingly autonomous spheres of activity collapsed onto an alien terrain, one governed neither by the rigor of logic nor the unpredictability of dreams. With some of the flat-footed humor that animated Edward Ruscha’s impossible attempts to chronicle every building on the Sunset Strip, or all of the gas stations between Oklahoma and L.A., LaBelle’s art doggedly insists that it captures the weirdness of our everyday urban environment. With a slight touch of Chris Burden’s vicious insistence that human flesh is the ultimate battleground upon which unfathomable wars are regularly played out, his works incorporate the type of pain that can only be experienced up-close and in person. In a nefarious struggle between immediate physical suffering and detached, abstract calculation, LaBelle’s art sketches the connections between individual sentiments and large, potentially communal experiences. His work suggests that extreme alienation might be the only tie among society’s diverse members.

To make his installation, LaBelle divided himself in two. He has taken the name of Charles Bon from a character in William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, 1936. In the novel, Bon’s social life is ruined after his compatriots discover that his great grandmother was black, making him merely 15/16 white. The piece LaBelle attributed to Bon consists of 56 photographs of 72 Christmas trees, stripped of their festive decorations, abandoned in the street, and tagged with forensic labels that make each appear to mark the scene of a violent, fatal crime. In the gallery, the repetitive grid of pictures was presented with three detailed maps of the trees’ locations and dates of discovery in New York’s West Village. His documentation perversely intimates that investigators can disappear into their investigations, without calling attention to their manipulative maneuvers.

Also stacked throughout the gallery were piles of mattresses and sofa cushions into which LaBelle stuck orderly arrangements of pushpins and miniature, flaglike banners. The stained surfaces of the furniture he collected from the streets of L. A. resembled battle plans concocted by generals in their protected, makeshift headquarters, far from the deadly threats of the front. A 30-minute videotape depicted an acupuncturist pressing similar flags and pins into LaBelle’s feet, legs, abdomen, chest, neck, and head. This component of his installation transformed the abstract distance of these supposed masterplans into the mundane suffering of single, faceless individuals. By tracing the operations of this form of culture back to the bodies of its anonymous subjects, LaBelle’s art insists upon the intersections between theory and practice, intimating that these superficially antagonistic realms cross paths more often than we usually imagine.

David Pagel