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Charles LaBelle - Disappear (Shirt That Has Passed Through My Body), 1999

Charles LaBelle
at Roberts & Tilton
Art issues. Sept/Oct 2000

In previous shows, Charles LaBelle has embroidered bedsheets stained by bodily fluids; painted mattresses found on the streets of Los Angeles with maps of other cities;
plotted out war-games on found cushions and had his own body acupunctured with corresponding flag-pins; photographically documented the locations of abandoned Christmas trees around New York; and painted patterns on lampshades with his own blood. Convincingly combining a number of streams from contemporary art practice, these installations pushed the conceptualist fascination with grids and mapping toward the dangerous territories of expressionistic body art and feminist needlework. Most recently, LaBelle has been creating gorgeous off-kilter grids assembled from dozens of inch-square sections cut from color photographs of the urban landscape, forming a fragmented, condensed, and frantic patchwork that reveal a hitherto subdued formalist virtuosity.

The centerpiece of his most recent exhibition, Disappearer—Shirt that Passed Through My Body (2000) is a museologically vitrined white dress-shirt that has been gridded off and cut into consumable portions; passed piecemeal, mulelike, through LaBelle's alimentary tube in balloons; then meticulously reassembled (minus one square!). With each of the 200+ squares carefully numbered and slightly discolored from its bodily journey, the reassembled shirt, hung on a minimal, headless display mannequin, resembles an obscure nineteenth-century diagnostic tool from the Mutter Medical Museum, invoking an air of institutional historicism and arcane phrenological classification systems. Yet, the only history it actually embodies is its own abject gastrointestinal migration, and the tension of this physiological immediacy occupying the chalky cartographic rationality of its generative structure gives Disappearer powerful resonance.

While LaBelle's gridding of the artificial skin queasily brings to mind such touchstones of the outre Goth/surrealist art scene as Wisconsin grave-robber/murderer/cannibal Ed Gein, Clive Barker's Pinhead, and Disney's Cruella DeVille, it is on a more structural level, and in relation to the second part of the exhibition, that the work's filmic qualities galvanize attention. On two adjoining walls, ninety-nine washily fecal watercolors depicting the facades of every building LaBelle entered from Christmas 1998 through Valentine's Day 1999 are arranged in a long narrow grid. Whether drawn on the spot or rendered from memory (even with snapshot aide-mémoires), the work shifts back to a contemplative pre-industrial mode of looking. At the same time, it recalls documentary works by Edward Ruscha and Robbert Flick, which embody a distinctly cinematic understanding of time and space.

Given the implied correspondence between LaBelle's shirt/map and the diaristic freeze-frames, the process of passing the shirt through the artist's guts takes on a cinemagraphic tone. Juxtaposed to the architectural drawing project, Disappearer becomes organic cinema — shot, developed, and projected by the artist's digestive tract, then assembled into what appears to be the shirt it started out as. In fact, the imperfectly reconstructed shirt is a collapse of a four-dimensional cinematic construct into a three-dimensional sculptural simultaneity, which curiously recalls the woven film-leader "paintings" of Los Angeles artist Carter Potter.

The third component of the exhibition is less pleasurably disconcerting. A trio of well-presented mid-size c-prints shows the artist's hand holding a round mirror so that a bubble of cumulus-spattered cerulean is lodged in the middle of otherwise green and gray sidewalk shots. Now, I like a cliché as much if not more than the next guy, but sometimes a cliché is just a cliché. I cringed when I saw a similarly metonymic rear-view image in a Charles Ray catalog with the caption, "What I think an idea looks like," and I hated Prospero's Books . Such primer revelations of bipolar phenomenological dislocation are something that should be resolved before puberty subsides. Things are closer than they appear.

Exploring the interpenetration of interior and exterior maps of the world in terms of the literal inside and outside of the body is pretty good for one show, however. LaBelle continues to take subtle chances with the glass wall of tastefulness, and the resulting perverted hybrid of mammalian wallowing and Nietzschean fussiness strives to reconcile a cluster of art attitudes normally at odds. It's really just a question of putting things together again after you've taken them apart — and digested them.

The most unnerving part is that Doug Harvey seems to make sense.