Leaves of Book – The Work of Charles La Belle

I was privileged to speak at the Dec 11, book launch for Charles La Belle‘s Corpus and Guilty. To see the show, go to Saamlung Gallery in Hong Kong. To buy a copy in Shenzhen, visit the Old Heaven Bookstore in OCT. Response, below:

Charles La Belle’s artistic process of layering time and experience in a book that is simultaneously reread and rewritten reminded me of how Walt Wittman lived and in living wrote and rewrote, Leaves of Grass. Between 1855 and 1892, Wittman quite famously published no fewer than nine different editions of Leaves; over the past fourteen years, La Belle has published two volumes that relate to one ongoing project. This intellectual ebb and flow, the sentimental return and reevaluation, self-promotion and in-your-face jouissance enabled Wittman to voice and in voicing inhabit the expanding, teeming, writhing, and destabilizing emergence of a uniquely American identity. Likewise, La Belle also performs an artistic stutter-step to more fully inhabit the unruly emergence of post Cold War, post socialist, post modern, post industrial globalizing and globalized urban identities.

“Buildings Entered,” La Belle’s life work is best aligned with Wittman’s spiritual wandering at the level of process. Like Wittman, La Belle has chosen one medium and one theme to which he constantly returns; like Wittman, La Belle grapples with the problem of transforming mere being into the well-lived – and yes, this is the ethically well-lived – life; like Wittman, La Belle accepts the immanent mysticism of ordinary human lives. The building first entered, like the open road invites each of us to inhabit the unknown.

In terms of content, however, over a century of industrial expansion and relentless capitalist urbanization separate Wittman from La Belle. La Belle, like the rest of us itinerant urbanites wanders cities that alienate us from ourselves and from each other. Indeed, La Belle’s choice to re-inscribe George Baitaille’s Guilty and Jean-Luc Nancy’s Corpus  are symptomatic of how we have inhabited the American century through French figures of urban despair; Charles Baudelaire’s undernourished flaneur, who slopes through dark alleyways in search of human connection is intuitively more familiar to most of us than is Wittman’s robust wanderer who does – at so many levels and in so many wonderful ways – makes love to the world.

La Belle’s life work raises an important question: How do we deal with the ennui that has come to deeply characterize our modern cities? (Pay attention, Toto – our symptoms carry French names, but we’re not in Kansas.) Where do we, children of the fragmenting American century go to craft and to nourish our lives?

In Guilty, La Belle answers this question by moving from the street into places of worship. In Corpus, he answers this question by moving from the street into places that manage and manipulate the human body. La Belle stands apart, observes, takes a photograph of the building, and then enters. Importantly, this movement initiates a relationship. Subsequently, La Belle sketches, reads, evaluates, and then may place the building on the leaves of a book, conjoining disparate places and time through his artwork. Indeed, I emphasize the  integration of corporeal experience in La Belle’s work: the foot striding forward and the hand reconstituting memory enable forms of inhabitation that the eye can merely imagine.

All this to say, although La Belle’s lifework may start from a less pastoral point of departure than Wittman’s, nevertheless his careful sketches of buildings entered allow him to meet up with his compatriot on the open road. Wittman’s poetry celebrated both US American movement across the continent and the bodies that industrial laboring produced. On pages of Guilty and Corpus, which La Belle has marked over while reading and then rewritten through his sketches, we discover traces of that necessary engagement with the world. If we are to overcome – indeed, if we are to repurpose – the alienation we feel as visual flaneurs in our globalizing cities, then our feet must move and our hands must touch beyond what the eye can see.

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