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The Art of Labat 

The shock of the old: An offbeat artist gets a worthy retrospective

Wednesday, Sep 21 2005
Proving that you can't keep a good man down, or clothed, or away from controversy, "Trust Me" is a new exhibit featuring bits and pieces of the rampage that is Tony Labat's artistic career. Thirty years ago, the San Francisco Art Institute professor (then an undergraduate there) sent New Langton Arts' curators a dozen roses and a note, hoping to become one of their commissioned artists, but circumventing the usual essay/proposal route. They were charmed and gave his career a kick-start. The current exhibit is a perfect vantage point from which to gauge the value of that long-ago decision: The note said, "Trust me." The administrators did, and Labat is now an internationally shown performance and video artist. See what happens when young artists get serious encouragement?

What happened in Labat's case is a conceptually unfettered body of work spanning genres from painting to film, focusing largely on the absurdities and hypocrisies integral to the immigrant experience. Possibly his most notorious performance is Black Beans 'n Rice, during which he joined the audience in listening to his mother give her recipe for black beans live over the telephone from Cuba, while he stood on a canoe contending with a mirrored disco ball hanging from his nuts. The piece is incorporated into "Trust Me" with a commemorative disco decoration, poignant and funny on its own, even testicle-less.

The breadth of Labat's oeuvre makes for a number of such interesting displays, including a fingernail nailed to a board and some of the infamous paintings made with his own crap. Much of the work represented here is intended to shock, yes, but the many awards and grants the artist has won are a reminder of the most basic rule of looking at art: This is all done for a reason, and it's up to you to suss it out. Trust him.

About The Author

Hiya Swanhuyser


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