Through March 5, 2011
(Reprinted from ArtSlant.com)
When it comes to the many young Los Angeles artists that engage very specific modernist masters amongst a litany of popular associations, I am considering the possibility that despite all of their witty references, their contemporary posturing, and in general, their fast talking when it comes to art, it is best to start with a simple question: do these artists live up (on a formal, physical level) to the artists they think about? Does a Mark Grotjahn painting hold a wall as well as a Jasper Johns Crosshatch painting? Do Aaron Curry’s sculptures, intent on offering thrills beyond Alexander Calder based in the flow of contemporary information, actually offer those thrills, is he as good a sculptor as Calder even on Calder’s worst day? Does a Sterling Ruby defaced plinth out-achieve Robert Morris in its critique, or does it use Morris as a visual crutch? To put it bluntly, which would you rather have in the room and which is deeper, a Marküs Lupertz sculpture or a Thomas Houseago?
I’ve asked this question before. Surely it is fair—in an artworld that has critically considered questions about its own demise and about the possibility that everything has been done, in an artworld where if one can’t achieve virtuosity of form on one’s own, there are brilliant fabricators that can achieve it—to make an old fashioned formal comparison between the old and the new? Houseago, for instance, can sing you a Beatle’s tune, use Picasso and Hanna Barbera in the same sentence, can talk about why Mike Kelley is important and has a firm place in art history, and then turn around and say that history is not fixed, that “no act or decision is more necessary or absurd” than any other act or decision. In this gush of information and statements, can Houseago make a sculpture as well as his teacher Thomas Schütte?
The answer is yes, sometimes.
I find Houseago's work both better than I expect at times (actually sometimes quite dazzling) and at other times, literally epically disappointing. He should take heart, only a great talent can epically disappoint. Someone with meager talents can’t epically do anything. He should take even more heart. I think if he gets where he is going, Houseago could be quite astonishing.
Currently, Rattlesnake Figure (Carving), 2010, is Houseago at his best. This hunk of redwood, as Leah Ollman correctly observed in the Times, has “the latent energy of Michelangelo’s slaves.” However, I am finding that I can go much further. Houseago pairs Michelangelo’s Dying Slave, 1513-1516 with German Expressionist wood carving (which Ollman also mentions). This is no mere happenstance. The Platonism that drove Michelangelo, his belief that a figure resides in the rock, that its very essence is part of the rock whether or not Michelangelo released it, directly communicates with the Romanticism that drove many Germans up to Baselitz and Balkenhol. The mysticism of the German forest implies its ability to whisper primal secrets into the ear of a hiker or a philosopher on a walk. That a forest can take on a archetype or mythological persona that could drive sculpture, does not seem to be lost on Houseago. These are two very different and quite complicated visions of sculptural essence, and Houseago finds both, Platonic and Romantic, in the same piece of wood.
Houseago likes to unify different visions, but rarely does he do it as seamlessly as he does in Rattlesnake Figure. What’s even more impressive is that this isn’t the entire story of this piece. When encountering the work, I challenge the viewer to determine the back of the sculpture from the front. After close looking, I failed in my attempt. Glutes easily turn into thigh muscles, the directional force of the legs and body is difficult to determine, the face carving and drawing is a collection of mis-directions and false clues. Here we have a Picasso/Rodin shattering of figuration, a sculpture that is a whole figure with a take on sculptural essence in a traditional sense, yet a work that cannot be pinned down as an “image” or embodiment of any one thing. Even as Houseago invokes the Germans and Renaissance Platonists, he undermines them. He shows he is a Picasso man at heart. He’ll meditate on a self and then explode it to pieces.
This is a really fine piece of sculpture. I also think Bottle II, 2010 and Dancer II, 2010 are fine as well. At bare minimum, they pass the test that I laid out at the beginning of the piece. I absolutely think these three works generate enough interest, presence, and are dense enough with historical complexity to rival the sculptors that Houseago loves and loves to think about, even if the rest of works in the show do not (reserving the right, however, to be wrong about his new non-mask wall reliefs).
But even the three really good sculptures beg another, even more pressing question: if Houseago can hang formally with the greats, what is he bringing to the table that distinguishes him? He can pull off feats technically. He can be shifty like Picasso. He can come and go talking of Michelangelo, so what?
I actually think I have a premonition of where Houseago is headed. I mentioned Schütte earlier and I cannot help thinking of Schütte’s great work Ganz Grosse Geister (Big Spirits XL), 2004 at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago.
Like Houseago, Schütte can be reduced to easy tropes. A casual museum goer can say with confidence that Big Spirits channels the bulbous Michelin Man. A more than casual museum goer will detect the hint of Rodin’s Burghers of Calais, 1889, perhaps because one of the figures asserts his chest forward (even though unlike the Rodin’s figure, his face is skyward rather than straight ahead) and another figure's hand juts outward. Calais, travel, the dynamics of historical sculptural groupings, popular culture, even a little techno light-stick dancing, all of these things come to mind when viewing the Schütte. Like Rattlesnake Figure, we can find the references and feel comfortable about them.
However, the references are not the whole story, not by a mile. This sculpture grows long in the mind—the figures are alien, not of this earth, somehow gleaming yellow and a Michelin Man yet not a cartoon. It is an odd, burrowing piece of sculptural intelligence that not only transcends its associations but gives you a sense that you are seeing something from around the corner or from across the universe. There’s a spirit and an energy that doesn’t merely come from enthusiasm (which Houseago has in spades) or from historical friction but from oddity, uniqueness, from a place that Schütte has access to but I do not.
It may sound slightly mysterious and it may be hard to explain, but if Houseago can ever show us a place like this of his own, we will really see something.