New York In Passages in Modern Sculpture (1977), a book that traced the dissolution of traditional three-dimensional composition from Rodin’s Gates of Hell to Michael Heizer’s Double Negative, Rosalind Krauss noted that modern sculpture tended toward the expression of process and flux. Whereas “we normally think of the self as a subjectivity with special access to its own conscious states,” Krauss further observed, sculpture of the 20th century increasingly demonstrated that “meaning, instead of preceding experience, occurs within experience.”1 Two years later, she published the more widely influential “Sculpture in the Expanded Field,” an essay in which she elaborated her ideas on what she now termed “postmodern” sculpture. Having turned away from the “idealist space” of mid-20th-century three-dimensional art, she wrote, artists were now mapping out various coordinates on an expanded field that she detailed in a geometric diagram marked by landscape, architecture and, a little mysteriously, their opposites (“not-landscape,” “not-architecture”).2
It seemed a point of no return. And indeed, in the decades that followed, sculpture was characterized by exponentially increasing diffuseness. Public sculpture in particular spread laterally and underground, and reflected the processes of its own creation. It assimilated itself to architecture and design, on the one hand, and was often ephemeral and even immaterial on the other, extending to performance and body art. Electronic media entered the field of public art, which also not infrequently took the form of political activism or social service. Each of these approaches is still actively pursued; for all their diversity, the positions they occupy could be called entrenched.
Enter, banners flying, a proudly traditional band of figurative sculptors, happily staking their portions of idealist space. They are represented in force by “Statuesque,” an outdoor exhibition (through Dec. 3) curated by Nicholas Baume, director of the Public Art Fund, for New York’s City Hall Park. Surely chosen in a spirit of gleeful contrarianism, the title invokes not only the classicizing term “statuary” (as in equestrian, commemorative and so on), but is also a euphemism for big and curvy (as in, say, John Currin). The artists are Pawel Althamer, Huma Bhabha, Aaron Curry, Thomas Houseago, Matthew Monahan and Rebecca Warren. All were born in the 1960s or ’70s. Their points of reference include Matisse, Calder, Giacometti, Picabia and, above all, Picasso. Duchamp’s influence is nowhere to be seen; neither is that of Robert Morris, Krauss’s standard bearer, nor any of his peers or successors. Much of the work is cast in bronze (there is also welded and cast aluminum). It is all figurative, though the figures are variably abstracted. It tends to decline subtlety.
Three of the participants—Curry, Houseago and Monahan—are exact coevals (born in 1972) and friends who have, more or less explicitly, pledged to work by hand and to eschew found objects. Among them, the Texas-born Curry is the show’s most conspicuous presence, with three big, exceedingly bright sculptures (all 2010) made of torqued and welded cut-out sheets of aluminum powder-coated in candy-dot colors. The hot pink Horned Head Trip (reclining), an almost laughably Picassoid bull with two banderillas in its side, greets the visitor near one of the park’s entrances. Guarding another is Big Pink, a more reductive beast with a big chest and huge dangling testicles, its horned head turned to face Yellow Bird Boy, which looks something like a tern-headed dog. The bull’s balls reappear in Yellow Bird Boy as big floppy ears, dangling from the animal’s snout, or beak.
Houseago is likewise represented by three sculptures. Untitled (Lumpy Figure), 2009, is a striding man cast in bronze from what looks to have been an armature covered in ropy coils of clay. Its single, Cyclopean eye is a gaping hole in a massive, slightly downcast head, which is shadowed by a shieldlike form that enforces a martial feeling also evoked by its gunmetal-gray patina. The rust-colored Untitled (Red Man), 2008—at 13 feet tall, the show’s largest work—is a looming, broad-shouldered figure with Roman-senator hair that falls in a short fringe over a broad, shallow forehead. Flimsy-looking legs terminate in big, cloddy feet: it’s not easy getting such a top-heavy hulk to stand up. Lastly, Houseago presents Untitled (Sprawling Octopus Man), 2009, a cast-bronze variation on the monstrous squatting Baby (2009-10), a hectically mixed-medium sculpture included in the 2010 Whitney Biennial.
Monahan’s single contribution, the cast-bronze Nation Builder (2010), suggests, like Houseago’s Lumpy Figure, a striding centurion, though Monahan’s warrior is cut off at its knees and set atop two stacked, faceted columns. An armored breastplate, various vaguely futurist accessories and a massive, pylon-shaped weapon resting on his shoulder help place Nation Builder somewhere between the civilizations of the ancient Mediterranean and a first-person-shooter video game.
Houseago grew up in northern England, in working-class Leeds, whose hard-drinking, prone-to-violence, thoroughly philistine culture he described with relish in a public lecture, one of a series by “Statuesque” artists held at the New School this past spring. Among the influences Houseago cited were Darth Vader, African Fang masks, William Blake, Donatello, Michelangelo, Brancusi, Giacometti, Henry Moore (“I hated him for a long time but now think he’s brilliant”), Joseph Beuys, Thomas Schütte and Picasso. Studying in the 1990s with Stanley Brouwn and Jan Dibbets at De Ateliers in Amsterdam (Monahan was a student there, too), Houseago expected, he said, to read Lyotard; instead, the class took a field trip to Berlin to see the Pergamon altarpiece. He was impressed; nonetheless, he claimed to like the idea of “monuments with no reason, monuments to nothing,” and said he’d be happy to fashion a “magic, utopic world.” Monahan, a native of California (where both artists now live, as does Curry), also delivered a lecture; his reference points were much the same, although, somewhat more cautiously than Houseago, he ventured that the exhibition’s title “suggests we can sneak back” to a tradition of monumental statuary which may not really be accessible; he acknowledged that the attempt involves “living history backwards.”