LaBier merges cultural iconography, modern mundanity

The Embrace by Peter Labier
The above image, “The Embrace,” is artist Peter LaBier ’03’s rendition of a photograph depicting a fight between Larry Bird and Doctor J. He mused, “I’m interested in how loaded certain images are because of all the cultural and personal stuff we read in them.” Courtesy of Peter Labier

Alumnus Peter LaBier ’03 has described his work as assemblage, as “a body of flotsam and jetsam,” “the disjointed refuse of our material culture.” Even his single-medium paintings give the illusion of collage and multiple strata.

After studying studio art at Vassar and Columbia, LaBier continued to merge the timeless and timely, the mundane and the legendary, in his visual art. His art thrums with life, featuring human anatomy as well as religious and cultural iconography—all charged images, he hopes, loaded with meaning for the viewer and society. He also went on to stage dance performances and start the band Psychobuildings, a project founded on the sights and sounds of dance. Through performative art and Psychobuildings, the characteristic liveliness of canvas and paper found a home in choreography and music.

The Miscellany News talked to LaBier about source images, Dutch painters and his musical career. Responses were slightly edited for length, style and clarity.

The Miscellany News: I noticed that a lot of your work features images borrowed from popular or commercial culture. You’ve described your figures as “readymades,” or borrowing from our material culture. What draws you towards these motifs?

Peter LaBier: One image in particular, “The Embrace,” comes from a basketball game. The original is a photograph; it’s of a fight that broke out between Larry Bird and Doctor J in the 1980s. The image looks really charged to me—I think I saw it in the summer of 2016, the summer of that election, and it felt like the beginning of this more fraught time we’re still living in. I think it felt like that image, two people just fighting, also represented a lot more.

I’m interested in taking or working these image types that aren’t necessarily things that I constructed. A thing that happened in the world, a photograph—using that as a source, because even when I’m working more inwardly I’m always of the world; I’m always looking to my surroundings.

M: In picking and choosing your subject matter from your observations, do you always seek figures that have political or present significance?

PL: Yes, I always look to the now, but I also look at things that aren’t from now now. I’m interested in the ways that things shift over time. I’ve also done a lot of images dealing with Jesus—weirdly, because I’m not a Christian and I wasn’t raised with that, but it’s such a big part of the culture of visual art that maybe that’s another one [like the basketball game] where, obviously, it has all this meaning in the world and personal meaning to a lot of people.

A lot of times, I’ve shied away from things that feel really topical. I’ll do it sometimes for myself and then I’ll not show it sometimes. The basketball one, I was describing it in a way that sounded topical, but it is an image that’s from the 1980s so it’s not that recent, you know.

M: You also seem to like anatomy: breasts, penises, dismembered hands. When you depict humans or parts of humans, do you see them as objects, comprising a still life, or are you making portraits or likenesses?

PL: I always think about the body. I feel like a painting or drawing almost is an extension of the body. I want to see that again, or it’s an attempt to see myself or others. But even if it’s disjointed, I don’t think of it as just stuff. I think of it as more charged, almost animated—the way we are. I think most things I do, even when they’re not bodies, can be thought of in those terms, animated or charged with life.

M: Some of your inspirations include memento mori paintings by the Dutch masters. What appeals to you so much about these still life images?

PL: I sometimes draw from observation like that, but less frequently [than before]. I think the first one I did was a painting of this gremlin doll. This is a tradition that we still live with, because everyone knows what a still life is. It’s antiquated in a way but then it’s very timeless. I’m always interested in something that is timeless but still relevant, even if its meaning shifts. I was approaching mundane, everyday things with that attention for the passing moment, when I did those paintings.

When I look back at it, I didn’t really push hard enough to do contemporary things. I shied away from that because it felt like [the subjects were] nostalgic. I question that more now, even the technology, because there were some that were more technological, but a little older. I wanted to approach them with that kind of reverence [of the Dutch masters] but doing banana peels, a motorcycle helmet. Sometimes I would choose things because I thought they had a funny relationship to memento mori paintings. [The helmet] looked like it could be a skull, but it was something contemporary.

M: You did a show with Amanda Friedman at Safe Gallery. Can you speak on your contributions to the show?

PL: I made all these paintings that were based on drawings that I made between the ages of 4 to 14. I’d like to think I have more of a [stylistic] range than I did when I was 7 or 12. I was limiting myself to that. I also combined multiple drawings to make a new image and bring color in, because a lot of times they were black and white drawings, but I wouldn’t deviate from the mark-making that was in them. I’m still working that way sometimes, and I found it to be really strange—it felt like a weird time loop or something. Some of the paintings were quite large, an 8 by 10. I felt like the inner child in me was really excited to see that blown up. Within this one painting there were three different drawings: I had some guy getting eaten by a shark, I had probably drawn it when I was 5. There was one when I was 9, one when I was 14. It was a chair with a head on it and there were some arms coming out of the head. A disjointed kind of image.

M: When you use “found imagery” from your childhood, do you make a print or do you just look at them and copy them out?

PL: I look at them and copy them. Sometimes in the past I’ve used projectors to copy them accurately but when I want to blow up the scale exactingly there are other ways to do that. Even when I used a projector, I always spend time working on it without the projector. I mostly do it from observation of the drawing, and it’s very tedious.

M: Were you a big comics reader as a child?

PL: I’ve made some comic books that I’ve sometimes pulled imagery from, and I had comics. I was one of those people—I could not read them. I liked comic books for the images. I could never get into the stories, but I did have a little collection of them just because I liked the drawings. I’ve always been this way where I’ll just look at something and learn as much as I can and make it myself, which is why I started making my own comics. I’m interested in internalizing something that’s external. I think it’s fundamental to the way we relate as humans in terms of mimicry and trying to assess what someone’s feeling and responding. In terms of visual culture, too, it’s trying to replicate something and make something new for yourself with what you’re seeing.

M: What is Psychobuildings?

PL: I have this band called Psychobuildings. I started focusing on percussion and bass first and I wanted to dance. At Vassar, I didn’t really like to dance. I would dance more privately, I was very shy about that. I’m such a different person because of this band. I’ve taught myself to dance in a way that I’m comfortable with …  I’ve always kept my [visual] art separate, but more and more the two have been merging.

When I started Psychobuildings, it was very tightly choreographed and I had a costume. It was very focused in that way. Over time it has shifted and I’ve performed much more loosely. I was actually just dancing again, trying to figure out performing these new songs and how tightly I wanted them to be choreographed or if I wanted them to be a loose set of movements. I did a performance a few years ago at the Jewish Museum, and that was choreographed, but there was a set of movements that happened at different points—it wasn’t like, you know, it has to be right at this moment, when this happens in the song. It was a bit looser, not a structure, but a language I could speak. I had practiced a lot—it was all in my muscle memory—and it didn’t matter what order [the movements] were in.

LaBier’s band Psychobuildings will release two singles, “Other World” and “The Back Door,” later this month. Psychobuildings can be found on Spotify and YouTube. 

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