Spread, Part III – Tony Labat + Guy Overfelt

If there is one thing I’ve learned about art, it’s that anything goes. Gesture and the body are integral components that make Tony Labat and Guy Overfelt’s work so difficult to deny. The physicality involved in the making of their pieces is part of the creative process as well as the end result. After attending the artist panel discussion on April 14th, 2011, Labat was there with his selected artist, Guy Overfelt, and he mentioned the body serving as material for the art work.

For the Spread exhibition, Overfelt’s piece, Taser (by Proxy) (1998), shows Overfelt being tased by Labat. The off white color of the room and Overfelt’s dark clothing provide a sterile backdrop for the action. As Overfelt’s body tenses, a shot from the taser gun is released. He falls to the floor and the viewer is left to reconcile the happening between student and teacher and the response of shooter and recipient. Quite frankly, I can’t help but think of Americana and masculinity when viewing the work. Collectively, it involves the body and how the body is used to get what it wants, what it needs, and how much the body can withstand. The body is defined in a particular space, which requires the viewer to identify their role and engagement in the act of looking and watching.

“Labat (along with Chris Burden and Dan Graham, Lucille Ball and Ann Magnuson, Richard Pryor and Johnny Knoxville) should be a key figure in any history of artists using action to negotiate the role of media in constructing the various, often ephemeral, aesthetic, sexual, and political narratives producing and produced by bodies or their absence.” ~Bruce Hainley, Artforum, January 2006

With Labat’s synthesis of ideas as reflections on culture, identity, and politics, it’s only natural these notions permeate in his students’ work, in particular, Guy Overfelt. With the body as a means of showing a concept and breaking down the old taxonomy of American identity, Overfelt creates installations and sculptures where the viewer physically exists with form and matter in close proximity. Up in Smoke is a large-scale piece created from inflatable nylon and powered by an electric blower. Although one of the largest pieces in the entire Spread exhibition, it’s message strikes me as quite a simple one: all things eventually dissipate. Yet, with such an undeniable fixture as Up in Smoke, I couldn’t help but think back to my days in undergrad studying Karl Marx and how fitting a line from the Communist Manifesto,

All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind. ~ Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto

NOW…by no means am I associating Guy Overfelt’s work with any political and/or social movement. Yet, the Marx quote fit and it’s probably the second time in my entire life that I’ve actually had the opportunity to use it! Truthfully, there’s something about the way we exist and participate in consumption and creation that is not entirely apparent to us, at first. Yet, with a fair bit of scrutiny and an artist that presents simple ideas complexly or complex ideas simply. Overfelt’s past work culminates into a smokey haze that one has to physically take part in and understand from the inside out.

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Author: Dorothy R. Santos

Dorothy R. Santos (b. 1978) is a Filipina-American writer, editor, curator, and educator whose research interests include new media and digital art, activism, artificial intelligence, and biotechnology. Born and raised in San Francisco, California, she holds Bachelor’s degrees in Philosophy and Psychology from the University of San Francisco, and received her Master’s degree in Visual and Critical Studies at the California College of the Arts. She serves as one of the editors-in-chief for Hyphen magazine. Her work appears in art21, Art Practical, Daily Serving, Rhizome, Hyperallergic, and SF MOMA's Open Space. She has lectured at the De Young museum, Stanford University, School of Visual Arts, and more. Her essay “Materiality to Machines: Manufacturing the Organic and Hypotheses for Future Imaginings,” was published in The Routledge Companion to Biology in Art and Architecture (2016). She is currently a Yerba Buena Center for the Arts fellow researching the concept of citizenship. She also serves as executive staff for the Bay Area Society for Art & Activism and board member for the SOMArts Cultural Center.

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