San Francisco

Tony Labat

Anglim Gilbert Gallery

Tony Labat’s work has taken many different forms over the years—mixed-media installations, video, painting, and sculpture. Invariably it has a performance component, one that stems from the conceptual lineage of Chris Burden, Vito Acconci, and Bruce Nauman, whose work in the ’70s questioned the institutional limits of art through radical experimentation. My favorite example of Labat’s ability to intertwine analytic and experiential modes within a highly personal thematic is a year—long project from 1981 in which he trained to become a boxer and fought a professional bout, dressing in drag in his dealings with the boxing world (at least outside the ring). Thus, seeing this recent exhibition of prim, finely executed watercolors gave a jolt: it forces the viewer to consider afresh what his art is actually about.

The watercolors on view, which Labat collectively calls Broadway (all works 1997), were vignettes of the San Francisco street. One captures the marquee of a fading strip joint, another renders the cluster of objects—salt and pepper shakers, a small vase of wilting flowers—that deck the tables of Broadway’s lackluster eateries. The paint is reined in by black ink outlines drawn with a sure hand. The scenes arc devoid of people; they resemble memories of places that arc condensed into a few banal signs. They were painted on paper napkins from the cafés and restaurants in which Labat executed them, which would be just a quaintly artsy affectation were it not for the strange transformation the flimsy surfaces undergo. The drying of the tint-imbued napkins turns them into richly textured surfaces wrinkled like elephant skin, and seemingly as substantial.

In the Broadway series, Labat has “performed” a caricature of the artist borrowed from the popular imagination. He painted from life on the bohemian North Beach street (made famous by the Beats) where passersby could watch him. These picturesque watercolors are not just works of art but documents generated from a performance.

Labat included in the exhibition a flashing neon sign of a woman’s breast, which underscores that more is at stake than a surprisingly gallery-friendly exercise. It refers to the signature sign of Carol Doda, a stripper famous for her early silicone breast implants, who performed at Broadway’s legendary and now defunct Condor. In what way is Labat’s posturing as a bohemian artist related to Doda? Or, more perversely, is the parallel between the conceptual performer and the stripper? And with old-fashioned skin palaces like The Condor made passe by lap dancing, what is Labat suggesting by associating art with this milieu? Dancing around the definitions of art and its per formative underpinnings—the self-presentation of the artist—Labat recalls in this work the late Martin Kippenberger, especially his drawings on hotel stationery. Both artists positioned themselves as moving targets to challenge our convictions about art, including those that seem the most radical.

Daniela Salvioni