New York

Charles LaBelle

Anna Kustera Gallery

The 788 watercolor pencil drawings that make up Charles LaBelle’s series “Sugar Hill Suite—BLDGS” (all works 2005–2006) are rendered in a pleasingly unfussy sketchbook style, incorporating just enough detail to give a clear impression of the (mostly unremarkable) buildings that they represent, almost all of which are located in the storied Harlem neighborhood of the title. Each structure floats against the white space of the paper, isolated from its surroundings and objectified like a specimen under a microscope. Uniformly sized at about eleven inches square and pinned around the gallery in a four-high gridded frieze, the 352 examples that were included in LaBelle’s recent exhibition immediately recall numerous other attempts at incorporating serial, faux-archival structures into art—especially Ed Ruscha’s photo-book Every Building on the Sunset Strip, 1966.

As did the Los Angeles–based Ruscha, LaBelle fixates on the specifics of his locale, recording whatever happened to be there at the time he observed it, paying equal attention to Sugar Hill’s churches, schools, and libraries and its bodegas, bars, and fast-food joints. The result is a composite portrait of a once-upscale neighborhood that gradually slid towards poverty, before lately coming under the influence of gentrification. A neat visual essay on the functionality and changeability of urban space, the series also highlights the contribution of language to the definition of an area via linguistically colorful signage. Who wouldn’t feel at home in a part of the city that plays host to storefronts emblazoned with the legends AUNT JAMAICA BAKE PRODUCTS, JESUS TACO/TWIN DONUT, SHOE FETISH, and GHOST TATTOO? The cumulative impression is akin to cartoonist Ben Katchor’s vision of an outwardly grand, ultramodern economic hub built, incongruously, on crumbling foundations of eccentricity and obsolescence.

In an accompanying series of works on paper titled “Sugar Hill Suite—Territory Covered (Days 1–14)” LaBelle presents a sequence of maps tracing his progress through the same terrain. Each of the fourteen days’ worth of daily walks is presented as a simple diagram (albeit painted in the artist’s blood) and adorned with eccentric Letraset notations. These indicate points of local interest both real and fanciful or subjective, evoking Guy Debord’s reimagining of the plan of Paris along psychogeographic lines. Day 13, for example, captions two large red blobs near the center of the street grid THE FLANEUR AND THE PROSTITUTE CIRCULATING SECURELY IN THE CITY’S CLOGGED HEART, while Day 7 indicates a POINT OF NO RETURN. The detourned chart is a familiar strategy, but LaBelle invests it with just enough wit—bolstered by an enjoyably playful, slightly dadaesque aesthetic—to make it work in the here and now.

Less immediately appealing, because more visually awkward, are LaBelle’s sculptures. These employ furniture fabric, clothing, and other objects found on Sugar Hill’s streets in two related series. In “Sugar Hill Suite—Colonies,” the artist uses plaster and gesso to turn gloves and underwear into what look like miniature ski slopes, complete with tacks and tiny flags marking out routes across their irregular surfaces. In “Sugar Hill Suite—Los Olvidados,” he salvages the gaudy upholstery of a pair of abandoned sofas to make two suit jackets, adorning each with a range of oddball accessories also picked up on metropolitan dérives. Sugar Hill Suite—Los Olvidados (To a Passerby—for the Baroness), for example, has a compact disc safety-pinned to each breast, a wavy wig stuffed under each armpit, a plastic dog toy and a pair of furry dice affixed at crotch level, and a child’s drawing of a clown taped to its back. It looks like something that Sarah Lucas might make if she lived north of New York’s 125th Street, and its deliberate crudeness, while initially jarring, ultimately anchored the show.

Michael Wilson