Dominique Labauvie: Living in a material whirl 

The renowned artist’s minimalistic show at HCC’s Gallery 21 achieves strength through fragility.

Dominique Labauvie hardly needs an exhibition at Hillsborough Community College’s Gallery 221. The French artist is already established in his home country and in Tampa Bay, where honors accorded to him have included a 2010 solo exhibition at the Tampa Museum of Art. His world-class talent subsists in quiet retreat at the Tampa Heights studio he shares with his wife and daughter, named Bleu Acier, or “blue steel” in French, in honor of Labauvie’s preferred art-making medium.

So why agree to Wire. Paper. Steel, a modestly-sized showcase inside the library (where Gallery 221 is located) of HCC’s Dale Mabry campus, where most viewers will be 19-year-old college students?

For the sake of education, says Gallery 221 director Katherine Gibson, who was surprised when Labauvie agreed; asking him had been a pie-in-the-sky gamble. Gibson has been steadily raising the bar for exhibitions at the campus gallery over the past two years, shaping it into a smart white box run with impressive professionalism (on par with HCC’s Ybor City gallery). Looking around, a viewer can deduce the exhibition’s appeal for Labauvie: aside from the potential to inspire a student audience, his sculpture and drawings look fantastic in the space, and a brochure with good photos and an interview makes an excellent takeaway. In a community where private galleries of the calibre able to sell work like Labauvie’s can be counted on one hand, maybe this is the best way for such an artist simply to stay visible.

The consequence is a ridiculously good opportunity to commune with an exhibition that could have been airlifted out of Manhattan, a restrained selection of Labauvie’s meditations on the formal properties of line, shape, volume and space in steel, wire, pastel and charcoal.

To say that Labauvie sculpts in steel doesn’t begin to do justice to the complexity of his craft. He wrests long strips — metal lines — out of steel sheets and arranges them into three-dimensional compositions that display a remarkable fusion of strength and delicacy. The centerpiece of the Gallery 221 show is an 8-ft tall sculpture, “Flying Buttress” (2012), the crown of which is a gleaming band of perforated steel in an oblong loop, like a levitating bicycle chain. Beneath it, four supports, built out of steel lines and rectangular planes, suggest abstracted figures gracefully stretching to lift the loop up to the sky, buttressing its weight.

Labauvie’s work can be said to be about a lot of things. In the past, his more curvilinear constructions of steel have made me think of brushwork and reach for the word “calligraphic,” and I’ve heard him discuss his work in terms of sound and musicality. (It could be fun to play his sculptures with a mallet and listen to the steel vibrations, though what Labauvie means by musicality is more like visual rhythm.) This particular body of work seems most deeply invested in exploring how space is experienced — even generated — as a function of bodies, or volumes, moving in relationship to one another. Without bending, stretching, striving, balancing, flowing, resting, sliding and so on, there would be no space in an existential sense.

In both “Flying Buttress” and the drawings on view in the exhibition, Labauvie explores pregnant moments of spatial relationship. While the sculpture’s implied movement evokes a hoist heavenward, a series of three pastel-and-charcoal drawings, “Magnetic Fields” (2013), conjure rectangular planes arranged in a house-of-cards style state of balance. Flat black diamonds connect the planes, which are rendered somewhat illusionistically in three-dimensions like floating boards but shown from different and disorienting perspectives, in a precarious instant of equilibrium. Similar elements — black and white squares and diamonds — appear in a set of two drawings at the opposite end of the gallery, also arrayed in a mysterious metaphysical space where geometry is only as reliable as the idiosyncratic mind and hand that dreamed it.

On the one hand, the formalism of such works feels like a throwback to concerns more urgent in early-to-mid 20th century art-making (though still alive today); on the other, it feels like an exhilarating paring-down and inquiry into artistic fundamentals.

A witty exhibition-within-the-exhibition features doodle-like sculptures that Labauvie has coaxed out of champagne muselets, the wire cages that gird the corks of bottles of bubbly. About 30 of the tiny sculptures are staged on shelves mounted behind partitions in the gallery, so that visitors stumble upon them with surprise and delight. Some are fantastically anthropomorphic — kinky figures that arch and bow toward or away from each other, or solo acrobats in virtuosic poses. Others are delightfully bizarre abstract forms that invite psychological projection — Rorschach blots in wire. (They read as a rich, multilayered art joke on Surrealist automatism, the spontaneous technique that André Breton and others practiced to harness the subconscious mind; Richard Tuttle’s postminimalist wire sketches; and the perpetual duty of artists everywhere to entertain themselves during the winding-down of dinner parties.) Labauvie situates his wire doodles on lightweight shelves deliberately installed to droop exaggeratedly, lending the showcase of miniatures a delicious levity.

The result, like the overall exhibition, makes it difficult for a viewer to suppress a smile of deep satisfaction.

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