Sculptor-rock climber Lawrence LaBianca retools nature
October 19, 2006|By Jesse Hamlin, Chronicle Staff Writer
Lawrence LaBianca, a San Francisco sculptor who made his living for years leading rock climbers up Half Dome and skiers through the Sierra, was arrested at 16 for scaling the Saks building in Garden City, N.Y., where he grew up. It was his first climb.
"It's hard to get to a mountain when you're living in New York," said LaBianca, whose cleanly crafted, often comic pieces play on the tension between the natural and the man-made. There are mossy chunks of oak strung on steel cable and cranked by a boat winch into a giant ring, and a Y-shaped slab of black walnut with a tube of green neon glowing from within its hollowed-out heart.
"It's a retooling of nature," says LaBianca, 43, an ardent environmentalist and Ocean Beach surfer who makes sculpture with seawater, cast glass, welded steel, wind, granite stones and etched copper. A bunch are on view at Sculpturesite Gallery on Third Street and in the lobby of the office tower at 425 Market St., where lawyers and stockbrokers are greeted by an elegant 28-foot-high tapered arch made from the trunk of a bark-stripped redwood tree.
The artist, who got the felled tree from an arborist on Craigslist, turned the redwood on a friend's lathe in Point Reyes. He cut the trunk into 24 pieces, which he rounded, coopered and strung like a necklace on a curving steel spine that's anchored to the floor on round black steel plates. Originally, the piece, "The Best Way Out Is Through," was half inside, half outdoors, seeming to grow through the glass. But the building manager at Sculpturesite, where the work was first displayed, deemed it potentially perilous to absentminded passers-by, and it was taken down. It's now installed entirely inside 425 Market, bisected by a sheet of Plexiglas.
LaBianca -- a lean, muscular man who helped rig and choreograph the route artist Matthew Barney took in June when he scaled the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art atrium to make a wall drawing -- obviously would prefer that the piece be seen as conceived, "looking as if it's penetrating the window, bringing the outside in," he said.
The tree has been reshaped "in a kind of Dr. Seussian way," the artist added, noting "the arrogance" with which people often deal with nature. Instead of growing toward the light, this retooled tree reaches away from it, curving to the floor "like it's bowed down, in a prone position. There's this manipulation of nature." Like much of his work, "it's a hybridization. There's a kind of reverence for nature, but, at the same time, it's kind of destroying it."
LaBianca, who has created stage sculpture for Joanna Haigood, Jo Kreiter and other dancers, fell in love with the great outdoors as a kid on Long Island. His father, a New York City school administrator, took him fishing and to rural Maine. When he and a friend got busted for scaling the three-story Saks store -- they told the cops they were rock climbing -- they were sentenced to take a National Outdoor Leadership summer class in Wyoming's Wind River Range. When it was over, they hitched to Boulder, where LaBianca stayed and studied architecture at the University of Colorado.
After graduating, he and some friends went to Yosemite to climb Half Dome and El Capitan. LaBianca met a woman who brought him to San Francisco, and he fell in love with the city, in part because of its proximity to the ocean and mountains. He paid the bills by taking people climbing and as a ski guide for UC Berkeley's Cal Adventures. LaBianca also helped design camping gear for North Face and eventually hooked up with Wayne Campbell, the East Bay artist who founded Radwall, which builds indoor rock-climbing gyms. LaBianca has worked with Campbell on many projects -- he does some of the design and choreographs the climbing routes -- including the 75-foot-tall wall at the Las Vegas MGM Grand and Barney's SFMOMA climb.
He threw himself into sculpture in the '90s, getting a master's at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland (CCAC dropped the last C a few years ago, and LaBianca now teaches at CCA's San Francisco campus). He worked in clay, glass, wood and welded steel, drawn to the "physicality" of making things. As he does with climbing or skiing, "I get to put myself into the work and forge the material as I'm working with it," he said.
LaBianca's pieces are meticulously crafted, "but I never try to over-craft them. The concept is the strongest element. The concept determines what the material is and carries how far I go with the crafting of it. I want to get my idea across, and it's important that the craft doesn't get in the way. If there's a horrible weld that draws your attention, there needs to be a reason why it's a horrible weld. ... I like when things are process driven. There's a chance element in all my work. I have an idea, and as it develops, it informs me."