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Cameo: Signs and Simulacrum

A peek inside the studio of Ron Laboray, painter

Among the oxidizing train tracks and crumbling pavements of Granite City, Ill., upon a lane cast straight as a draftsman’s edge, there’s a trim and modest redbrick house. The interior is spare; the floorboards are raw and mottled with traces of dark stain. The tables are occupied with pigments and mixing agents, a faint taste of solvent rides the air, and there is a fine sanding grit on every undisturbed surface. This is the studio—and home—of painter Ron Laboray.

Beneath a pair of low windows, where a vintage sofa is draped with a floral print, Laboray sits compactly to one side, his elbow upon the sofa’s arm and his cheek resting occasionally against his supporting fingertips. There are images hung throughout the space; the one opposite the couch is called Patsy. Done in constrained black-and-white, it features the distinct, if somewhat blurred, figure of Detective James Leavelle recoiling from the thrust and discharge of Jack Ruby’s snub-nosed .38. At the center, concealed beneath a tidy rectangle of translucent lines, Lee Harvey Oswald is enfolded in the bloom of Ruby’s parting affection.

“And that’s An American Painting,” Laboray says, motioning at the adjacent wall. He is 39, merely creasing the envelope of 40, yet his hands are calloused and square, and when they gesture they seem to retain a grasping tension, a preference for utility and making.
Like Patsy, An American Painting is made from automotive enamel and resin on an aluminum panel, but where Patsy derives from the famous Robert H. Jackson photograph of Oswald’s murder, An American Painting responds to Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze’s celebrated depiction of George Washington crossing the Delaware River. Here, the soft-focus background contains the familiar portentous clouds, river ice, and humble vessel of a nation’s deliverance, while in the foreground, the boat’s passengers, oarsmen, Washington, and Old Glory are rendered in colorful striations of geometric abstraction.

At a glance, these pieces seem more serious than the work Laboray is best known for: paintings of maps, globes, and pop-culture icons. In Barbie’s Dream Globe (painted on an actual globe), continents are bathed in goopy pink circles, each blob signaling Barbie’s global sales figures by region. Batman Over Robin is not figurative but abstract: a pool of black and slate gray, representing the Dark Knight’s disguise, is poured on top of a striped background of Robin’s red, yellow, and green. This poppy, tongue-in-cheek attitude is threaded through most of Laboray’s work; cartoon characters appear as frequently in his unfolding catalog as Ben-Day dots did for Roy Lichtenstein.

Laboray, who has shown at Chicago’s Peter Miller Gallery for more than a decade, is a Washington University MFA and an adjunct lecturer at its Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts. He is also originally from Granite City. This is why he has, among other things, organized a sculpture park here, mentored at-risk kids through a photography group, held plein-air painting exhibitions at City Hall, and stepped up to chair the city’s historical-architecture committee. As it pertains to his work, however, Granite City has also served to true the lens through which Laboray observes American cultural textures. Taken together with another field of interest and training—archeology—these account for much of the conceptual harmonics that resonate in his work.

Among the archeological principles that influence Laboray’s process, the most important visual strategy is superposition. As it relates to geological phenomena, the law of superposition states that in an undisturbed sequence, things happen from the bottom up over time—one layer atop the next. For Laboray, this principle serves not only as a design mechanism for his painting and sculpture, but also as a lever for condensing the tiers of dialogue existing within his work. Key among these is the notion of the artifact. And using superposition as a kind of conceptual rhyme, he employs the artifact as historical or geological object; the artifact as impress of art-historical tradition; and the artifactual nature of high and low culture all as one faceted subject within his work.

“It’s like the way on television, you can have History of The Universe right beside Hunt for The Sasquatch,” he says. “It’s all part of a picture of social relationships.”

But despite Laboray’s work folding the ground between 20th-century French philosophy and consumer culture, the notion of class and hierarchy remains conspicuously absent from our dialogue. It is a subject that seems implicit, given the dichotomies created by “relating the high and low as equals,” as he says. One feels it within his work like light on the skin, heat from an elusive source, but our conversation bends around it. Where is the antagonism of class, then, amid these aggregated cultural tensions? He leans forward and rests his arms on his knees: “It’s the fat in the steak.”

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