this wall-based artist paints an often brutally honest emotional landscape

by Gilda Rogers • photos by robert nuzzie

Michael LaBua walks a sane tightrope that borders on insanity. He’s an artist who counts comedians like Richard Pryor, George Carlin, and Lenny Bruce an influences, and for a specific reason.

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“They’re crying out from pain,” said LaBua of his attraction to the group. “A comic is saying things everybody knows, and is shedding light on truth. Their intelligence allows them to craft it so well that they get very little backlash.”

For his show, simply entitled “LaBua” and set to open June 3 at Detour Gallery, in Red Bank, he again credits the legendary comedians as octane driving his artistry.

LaBua’s work is sweeping and hopeful, yet distorted just enough to
reveal an inner landscape of broken souls; a notion apropos of a series he calls “Assemblance,” created when he was, as he describes, “fed-up with things.” The three 72″ x 100″ oil on canvas portraits capture model Peter Petliski, depicted as
a clown, whose sad eyes are radiantly intense.

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LaBua was drawn to Petliski, a Vietnam veteran, in part because of his unique experiences. Over much of his life, the model had descended into alcoholism, until he made a radical change and became “almost Buddha like,” explained the artist. The works also
evoke America’s troubled history with race, among other issues.

In conversation, it becomes evident LaBua is a deep thinker, taking his intellectual cues from writers like Dostoevsky, Faulkner, and Steinbeck, while singling out the existentialist
philosopher Kierkegaard as a source for his own worldview. Born in Brooklyn, the 30-year-old grew up in Woodbridge and now resides in Wall, where he has a studio.

Detour’s ample 10,000 square feet are uniquely suited for artists like LaBua, who specialize in large-scale pieces, and he feverishly prepared for the exhibition opportunity, often painting 20 hours per day. “In one way, [creating art] is the bane of my
existence,” he said. “It’s ruining me on every level, but then there’s the liberation…it’s a strange paradox.”

His favorite artist is Mark Rothko, the mid-20th century abstract expressionist whose style evokes an emotional reaction through its intense conversation of color.

“He discovered how color speaks and you have to be open to it when you move from one [piece] to the next,” said LaBua. “It will take you on a journey”


Also demonstrated in LaBua’s work is a reverence for the 17th century Baroque masters, but perhaps no one has influenced him more than the 35-year old Italian artist Nicola Samori.

“He does a lot of Baroque style, but manipulates it in a way that destroys it and makes it even more beautiful,” said LaBua. Put simply, Samori breaks through the conceptualization of what is thought to be beautiful, while simultaneously telling the ugly truth about mankind. It’s a place where LaBua’s own style also resides.

“Art is the delivery of truth,” he stated. “Each artist who gets known through his own language adds to the story. You’re living in a cave, metaphysically, and it has nothing to do with society anymore” adding that creating 20 large-scale pieces in a year’s time was a tremendous undertaking, one that caused the painter to view his approach differently.

“The next stage in my career is that I’m still going to focus
on large pieces, but only create ten a year, because the work
needs that level of attention,” he concluded.


Michael LaBua
Detour Gallery / 24 Clay Street, Red Bank / 732.704.3115 /