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Labat Brings Art Back to Life With ‘Frankenstein’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For his current exhibit at Laguna Art Museum, Tony Labat played a little trick, and it looks as if he’s having the last laugh.

The show consists of works Labat constructed by sewing together paintings he found in thrift shops, garage sales and antique stores. Think of wide-eyed, weepy children, that portrait of mother that somebody’s son made in art class, crashing waves, fruit and flower still-lifes, wanna-be Renoirs and Elvis on black velvet and you’ve got the idea.

One work, a tryptic like most of the others, features a painting with a happy couple holding eight cuddly puppies on their laps. But the painting didn’t come from a dusty thrift shop shelf, Labat said in a lecture at the museum Thursday.

Instead, he commissioned it from a student, whom he asked to copy a newspaper photograph of a sculpture by noted New York artist Jeff Koons, who based his sculpture--and has been sued for $2.8 million because of it--on a postcard by a Bay Area photographer.

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In other words, like a hall of mirrors, “it’s a painting of a photograph of a sculpture of a postcard” and best represents a show that explores the issue of authorship, Labat explained.

It’s also “a little fun I wanted to have, an inside joke,” he said with a victorious smile, noting that at least one art critic (not at this paper) failed to recognize Koons’ appropriation, assuming it, too, was by an amateur. Judging by the reaction from Labat’s audience of about 30 people, it took them by surprise as well.

A San Francisco artist best known for his video work and sculpture, Labat said that a large installation led to the aptly titled “Frankenstein Series,” from which the works at the museum were drawn.

The idea was to create a metaphor about how American art of the late 1980s suffered from “a type of historical suffocation,” and painting, where image and design were king, had little life or use, he said.

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The result was “Blanket Policy” (1987), a “20-foot-long functional tent” roomy enough for 18 people to sleep beneath a patchwork roof made of the first thrift store/garage sale relics Labat collected.

“This ‘80s romantic view of painting is superficial, rigid and not doing too much,” Labat, 39, said. “One of the main challenges of artists (today) is to question how art functions and an artist’s function in society. I was interested in how I could take these thrift-shop paintings that were quote-unquote ‘in the graveyard’ and put some function to them, bring them alive.”

Making art that functions--while naturally not always as literally as a camping tent--is critical for Labat. His aim is to make viewers think about much more than what they’re staring at.

Born in Havana, Cuba, Labat immigrated to Miami at 15. After traveling for a while, he settled in San Francisco and eventually graduated with a masters degree in sculpture from the San Francisco Art Institute, where he now teaches conceptual art.

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Brought up on conceptual art and late ‘60s, early ‘70s “process art,” he credits such influences as Marcel Duchamp, Bruce Nauman and Chris Burden, the latter notorious locally for having himself shot in the arm in a Santa Ana gallery.

“These people were definitely anti-object and very much interested in devices that provoked or invoked thought,” said the dark-eyed, soft-spoken Labat, who had solo exhibits at several major American museums. “For instance, if you take the concept of peace, you can’t necessarily paint it. But if you read the word peace or you think about peace, it’s a very beautiful idea.

“My generation started bringing the object back into the picture. A lot of conceptual art . . . was work that manifested itself in things that didn’t look like painting, didn’t look like art, didn’t look like sculpture. Now things look like art, but they are not so much about what’s in front of you as they are devices that enter the eye and make you think. They are really just excuses to make you talk and think.”

The Frankenstein Series was his attempt to create work that wasn’t dominated by form, technique or craft and to “avoid the talk about painting per se,” he said.

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Its montage tableaux, which juxtapose such images as lovers on a tree-lined path, a circus clown and an anemic flower in a vase, prompt observers to draw conclusions about what the associations mean or why the elements were put together. For instance, could this be about the folly of romance and the notion of eternal love?

“You bring your own history to what’s in front of you and it makes you create your own narrative and relationship to these works,” he said.

In fact, Labat didn’t title any of the works. During the lecture, he didn’t offer interpretations of any of them, though he said he had his reasons for coupling various images. He did, however, say he tries to stifle his own taste on shopping sprees.

“I take a very democratic approach. I’m not going for the cool ones, or for the bad ones, or for the tacky ones. I walk into a place and if there are six there, I’ll take all six.”

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Some of the paintings he found were “quite sick, to be honest--demented in some ways,” Labat said, and one member of his audience said that she had found some of his final compositions grimly disturbing and difficult to look at.

That’s a necessary risk, the artist said, drawing a parallel with censorship imposed on news reports about the Gulf War.

“Sometimes there’s a certain truth we should not ignore, and most of all, we should not hide it away and pretend it does not exist.”

“Tony Labat: New Paintings” runs through March 17 at the Laguna Art Museum, 307 Cliff Drive, Laguna Beach. Hours, Tuesday through Sunday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Admission: $2 adults, $1 seniors and students. Information: (714) 494-6531.

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