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Back To The Monumental

Text by
Michael Ned Holte
From: Issue 1 March 2009

Brancusi Goes to Hollywood: a young, Los Angeles-based artist confronts the traditional problems of sculpture, with surprising results.

One of my favorite moments in “Serpent,” Thomas Houseago’s first solo exhibition at David Kordansky Gallery in his adopted home of Los Angeles, could have been easily overlooked in the presence of the eight massive sculptures that comprise the show. Given the heavy-duty nature of Houseago’s favored materials—from bronze to California redwood to plaster to hemp—and the rough-hewn construction that brought his brutish, larger-than-life figures into being, an unexpectedly delicate detail emerges: the plywood and rebar arm of one untitled, upright figure is stretched behind its head and attached to its plaster torso, efficiently held in place with three common screws—a seemingly provisional solution that might be termed ‘value engineering.’

Circling the sculpture, the imposing figure suddenly turns vulnerable and then imposing again; three dimensions collapse into planarity then appear solid once more, and a potential metaphor for masculine anxiety is sublimated into complex spatial play. «Itʹs a very potent thing,» Houseago has stated, «to start messing around with an image of a man or a woman. Itʹs a very powerful drug.» Still, I sense that the figure is, for Houseago, less an end in itself than a means of exploiting sculptureʹs inherent syntactic possibilities. His sculptural bodies—mostly male in recent years—transcribe skin, muscle and bone into the dualistic sculpting traditions of addition (the bricolage of modernity) and subtraction (the carving and chiseling of an ancient regime), often mediated by loose drawing in graphite or oil stick which the artist leaves on the work as evidence of his process.

Houseagoʹs Los Angeles show, which was dominated by Untitled (Red Man) (2008), a four meter-tall bronze colossus, revealed a deeply-encoded understanding of sculptureʹs modern past, from the hand-wrought, additive surfaces of Auguste Rodinʹs figures to Carl Andreʹs use of timber as a repetitive module for construction—the latter most often represented in Houseagoʹs pedestals, which rather than passive support systems, are often players as active as the figures they support. In this sense, like Andre before him, Houseago undoubtedly looks to Constantin Brancusiʹs symbiotic but tense interplay of object and base. This is exemplified, and advanced, most succinctly with Carved Head (Base) (2007), a gnarled head partially carved from a huge section of timber and cast in aluminum, in which figure and base are literally coterminous.

«Itʹs ironic to be making these solid, self-contained sculptures in a city that is so temporal,» Houseago noted. «I find something fantastic in that.»

Houseago has emerged—along with artists including Aaron Curry, Matthew Monahan, Lara Schnitger and Ricky Swallow—as one of the leading Los Angeles sculptors reinvigorating the figurative idiom, in part by breaking that idiom into pieces in order to rebuild it. While this group constitutes a loose, sympathetic confederation rather than a full-fledged movement, it should be noted that Leeds-born Houseago attended the artist residency program at Amsterdamʹs De Ateliers along with Monahan and Schnitger, and now works in the same studio building as Curry. In 2008, Houseago and Curry organized the exhibition “Black Swan” at Michael Werner gallery in New York, gathering a motley crew of works by Markus Lüpertz, Per Kirkeby, A.R. Penck and Jörg Immendorff, among others. Houseago and Curry constructed unifying white pedestals for the objects, and added their own sculptures in response to the assembled work of their forebears.

This intensive reinvestigation of figuration comes at a time when pluralistic openness trumps teleological certitude, and in that yawning space of possibility, history is constantly being rewritten by artists drawing new connections to the past. «I have the feeling that for me now,» Houseago remarked in 2005, «I am more fascinated by the implications of Picassoʹs Les Demoiselles dʹAvignon than by those of Duchampʹs Fountain.» Houseago is surely well-situated in Los Angeles, given his adopted cityʹs expansive continuum of sculptural traditions dating to the 1960s, from the slick, spaced-out minimalism of John McCracken and Larry Bell to the funky, earthbound junk assemblages of George Herms and Ed Kienholz from the same period.

For better and worse, Iʹll always associate Houseagoʹs plaintive figures with the plaster-embalmed victims of busboy-turned-artist-turned-killer Walter Paisley, played to the hilt by Dick Miller, in Roger Cormanʹs 1959 beatnik horror-comedy classic, A Bucket of Blood, set in and around L.A.ʹs Venice Beach. Corman made his name on the margins of Hollywood by mastering a shoestring budget. The sets created for A Bucket of Blood, for example, were repurposed in the directorʹs better-known Little Shop of Horrors a year later. Like Corman before him, Houseago manages to capture the human condition with provisional solutions that approach invisibilty. In Los Angeles, the sprawling backlot of Hollywood, history often gives way to ephemerality. «Itʹs ironic to be making these solid, self-contained sculptures in a city that is so temporal,» Houseago noted. «I find something fantastic in that.»

Michael Ned Holte is a critic and independent curator based in Los Angeles. His writing has appeared in “Afterall,” “Artforum,” “Domus,” “Frieze,” “Interview,” and “North Drive Press.” Last November, he was a member of the curatorial team for the exhibition “Present Future” at Artissima 15 in Torino, Italy.

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