Steven Labadessa: A Painter of Scorched Sugar
Steven Labadessa's paintings are like burnt honey, scorched yet thick with the memory of sweetness. They are spoiled chocolate, curdled milk. My mother cringes when she sees his work- the portrayals of women, low lidded eyes, soft creased faces, often in semi-nude poses. Humor interjects itself into his pieces- in one painting, a naked woman sits with a squirrel on her lap, it's tail bushing up by her thighs. The women in his work always seem haunted, feral, like they know something dark about you, something you might not know yourself. It has been an absolute honor to publish his pieces in both volumes of WTR, and a pleasure to interview him regarding his artistic process.
Yasmin Belkhyr, Editor-in-Chief: When you're making art, do you think the lines between different mediums blend at times?
Steven Labadessa: If we take the term art as an umbrella terms to include all sorts of artistic practices, I would see myself as a visual artist. As such, I look/digest/process all sorts of material (visual) as part of my practice as well as, more targeted studies (literature) … so film, TV, internet, sculpture, drawing, installation, performance, dance, theater, etc… all (i.e., mediums) come into play in developing my imagery. Any artist in the 21st Century would invariably be multi-disciplinary in that respect.
A more particular/specific answer as to painting is that I view it as the “great” traditional medium of Western Fine Art. Painting encompasses drawing & sculpture and subsumes modern image technology.
YB: Have any artists in particular inspired your visual art?
I grew up spending enormous amount of time in front of a TV (8+ hours a day would not be far-fetched (talking pre-internet)). So between cartoons (Warner Bros. (Bugs Bunny), Hanna Barbera, MGM (Tom & Jerry), etc.), Toho/Daiei films (Godzilla/ Gamera respectfully), Cecil B DeMille films (notably, the Ten Commandments) … as well as growing up with comics (Marvel, I always took pleasure in the hyperbole of the translated life.
The fact that I am Italian and was raised Roman Catholic indirectly brought into the world of the Renaissance. All of which contributed heavily to the foundation of my visual vocabulary. So, I knew of Michelangelo, Leonardo, some Impressionism, but my serious formal Fine Arts study came much later.
YB: What inspires your subject matter, which seems to be predominately semi-nude women?
To begin, the nude is a classical language in the Western European tradition. I view it as timeless and since the conceptual underpinning of my work go towards an empathetic dialogue between the viewer and piece on matters of the human condition, that makes sense to me. Secondly (order interchangeable), as I was trained/introduced by my teachers to oil painting as a medium whose origins are tied to a sort of alchemy of “creating flesh” invariably this led to seeing a sensual quality to the medium that one would expect to tap into more primal stirrings, iconography/archetypes that will approach the sexual realm.
In our post-Freudian (i.e., Sigmund) world, especially dealing with human form, I would see my work and imagery as heterosexual, and if one were to look at figurative artists, you will likely see a natural proclivity to express themselves visually either through themselves directly or through what stirs them “fundamentally”. That plays out whether one is heterosexual or homosexual.
However, it does not follow that my work is prurient. It is arguably a point of fascination and, to some extent beauty. Of course, irrespective of that conceptually the work is self-portraiture; wherein, the models are actors/metaphors of my life/mind.
YB: That's intense; can you elaborate on that last bit? For a piece like 'Fairy Tale 1', what sort of mindset would that be portraying?
“Fairy Tale 1” and the other “Fairy Tale” pieces, as with all my work, deal with the physical and mental turmoil of isolation/loneliness to some respect. To the extent I wear the painting/the model as a mask for my interior life, the Fairy Tale series begins to manifest that the imagery breaks down that layering more literally. In “Fairy Tale 1”, you see the actual mask; in later versions, a more aggressive transformation takes place.
In all cases, there is (I hope) a sense of frustration at the failure or futility in escaping yourself. I am not making judgment: I operate on “pain loves company” line of thought, liken to the experience I have listening to the Blues (though only when sad, where it can be an uplifting experience in that the pain you feel form the music or my piece cleaves away at your own).
YB: Do you listen to music while you work?
Yes, sometimes. Sometimes, I will listen to soundtracks thunderstorms and rain in the forest. Most recently, lots of Marc Maron's WTF podcasts, with whom I felt a kinship towards for decades.
YB: Are you fueled by your community in any way?
I have been moving around a bit for the past few years, largely, outside of my studies, to build an academic career in the Arts. Largely, as a means to support my work and afford me the opportunity to have a family, all of which has been frustrated by the economy among other things (e.g., white male painting female nudes *sigh* How novel!)
As such, my travels/opportunities have taken me to the Midwest- and well, culturally speaking ,it is a strain in terms of living, meeting like-minded people. I always enjoyed teaching and my students, but it has been very difficult to “get a life”. I do find communications to be limited, indirect, which being raised in Brooklyn, NY, is unsettling. So, I do have a somewhat antagonistic relationship to the community. It has been mutual and somewhat aggressive at times.
I am currently in Indiana and I will be likely gone by September (I’m not sure where, as I am in the midst of the last legs of a prolonged desperate job search). I might be at Trader Joe’s in a neighborhood near you or a museum guard yelling at someone for getting too close to a Monet.
YB: How do you think the art community influences you? Does the concept of being "commercial" ever affect your art in any way?
If we are talking about the “Art World”- New York, London, etc, it doesn’t influence me. I read the magazines but I do not endorse in practice or teaching a commercial orientation (as would be natural inclination being a child a very “capitalist” society). I seek and try to instill a sense of integrity in myself and my students’ pursuits of their artistic voice. In some cases, their work might charm the market and that’s fine. Fine artists are not graphic designers, they do not “whore” themselves for a dollar, but for their work made from their metaphorical blood, sweat and tears in order to achieve whatever catharsis they are seeking in expunging from themselves in the most universal of languages to connect with others. Yes, very idealistic and I have willingly paid the price.
In my opinion, the market doesn’t dictate quality. To some extent museums (though many are increasingly more compromised), time does, as does developing/cultivating your own individual tastes. It can be an endless source of frustration for many but I have always seen myself as the greatest patron of my work til this time (aside from a few people that have acquired my work… which is a humbling/delightful experience).
I do use "whore" in a respectful manner to denote a raw, untamed honesty; just being a wee bit "Baroque"
YB: So final request- Leave a question behind for the next interviewee.
Where do you see the line between autobiography and fiction in your work (art or literature)? Do you purposefully mask it or allow it to be revealed for those who seek it?
To see more of Steven Labadessa's work, order Volume One of WTR right now! In a few weeks, make sure to pick up a copy of Volume 2, which along with Steven's work will include pieces by Terese Svobado, Chad Simpson, ARINA, Hanel Baveja, Denver Buston and more!