Faculty Spotlight: Tony Labat

Cuban-born artist Tony Labat has long been connected with the SFAI community. He graduated with a BFA in 1978 and an MFA in 1980. He contributed to the growth of the New Genres program as a student, and, as a professor, was instrumental in establishing its influence in the fields of performance, video, and installation. Labat is currently Faculty Director of MFA Programs and exhibits his work worldwide, including recently at Barbara Gladstone Gallery, New York, and at the 11th Havana Biennial in 2012. He also curated the summer exhibition in SFAI’s Walter and McBean Galleries, ¡Oye, Mira! Reflective Approaches in Contemporary Latin American Video Art.

Read on to learn about Labat's most candid memories from SFAI and his latest work (including a coca-cola fountain). 

Julie Weinberg: What is the meaning of New Genres?

Tony Labat: It’s hard to describe something that naturally resists a description. Having a definitive meaning is going against the overall philosophy of New Genres. But it’s been framed as being a step ahead of everything—including academia. Thinking on your feet, a state of being in the present moment, and also anticipation… looking around the corner to what’s to come. Years ago, there was a shift from the Performance Video Department (infamous PV) to the New Genres Department.  Performance Video was too limited, but in New Genres, everything was welcome. It is a true representation of contemporary art. 

JW: Tell me more about the changes in your program:

TL: I’m very proud of the shift in New Genres. They were inevitable and a true reflection of the faculty and students coming into the program. Performance art is like rock ‘n roll. In order to teach it, you need an environment that provides flexibility and understanding. As culture changes at SFAI, I must continue to shift and realign and evolve to the realities of working at an art school. After all, this isn’t 1970. I was forced to change my pedagogical approach, and I’m really very proud of the way we’ve wrestled with all of the cultural changes—in the program and beyond. 

JW: Tell me about your teaching philosophy.

TL: It’s not about looking over the shoulder of my students. It’s not craft oriented or mimicking. The students’ work should come from within… and it needs to involve a deep sense of context, responsibility, and intention. It’s not so much how you do it—but for whom, and when, and where.

JW: What are you working on now?

TL: I’m interested in signage, American icons, and cultural and social membership. I’m working with the peace sign—sort of a continuation of a long interest in public/private sculpture that started in the ‘90s.  I’m also obsessed with fountains. Some are for drinking, some are for pissing, and some are figurative fountains. They will be dirty, nasty, R-rated, and incredible. One is a coca cola fountain—instead of water.  

JW: You’ve been at SFAI for many, many years, as both a student and faculty member. Can you share with me one of your candid memories from your time here?

TL: Arriving at SFAI from Miami was a life changer. Meeting artists like Paul Kos and David Ireland and working with Karen Finley. These artists were part of ‘my’ school. There was such a strong encouragement to meet artists when I was a student here. It might sound corny, but Paul Kos inviting me to teach at SFAI was a profound moment in my life. Everything I ever got out of SFAI was in studio 9 and 10. There is a strong sense of community here—that’s the best part.