Thomas Houseago's first New York solo show evoked halls of plaster casts, those once-prevalent galleries that housed copies of architectural fragments and sculptural masterpieces in many American museums in the early 20th century. Not only does Houseago create much of his work from Tuf-Cal (a polymer-infused plaster that is especially sturdy), he also freely mines art history for forms and motifs. A good example is Plaster Gate I (2009), a 9-by-8-foot sculpture that resembles a triumphal arch from antiquity. Its opening is flanked by two pilasters bearing life-size reliefs of naked figures: one is modeled in stooped profile to suggest, perhaps, a water bearer of classical origin; the other, standing erect and viewed from behind, invites comparison to Matisse's celebrated "Back" sculptures. Stepping through the arch confirms that it is merely a facade; a scaffolding of metal rods supports the slender structure from behind and underscores the raw and provisional appearance of much of Houseago's work.
Titans of modern sculpture haunt many of the other 12 works shown. Rodin's Walking Man is clearly the inspiration for Houseago's Legs (Landslide) of 2010, a truncated and hollow lower body that steps across a sloping platform. In Houseago's rather ungainly variation, the powerful stride is exaggerated by thickly layered strips of plaster that suggest exposed thigh muscles, and by an advancing left foot that sinks deep into the sculpture's base. Invoking Brancusi without that artist's signature polish, Column II (2010) is an imposing totem of crudely carved redwood capped by a large plaster helmet (a likely reference to Henry Moore). The sides of the wooden plinth remain inscribed with the charcoal lines that first blocked out its jagged form. Such visible signs of rough-hewn construction are no doubt deliberate. But when combined with allusions to various modern masters, they seem to speak to a loss of traditional skills, techniques and formal concerns, and the fraught desire to recover them in an era of more conceptually minded post-studio artists. (Alternately, these touches might refer to the enthusiasm, among some early modernists, for evidence of the artist's hand.)
While a whiff of nostalgia circulates through this show, Houseago's work is never fully premised on the inadequacy of the present moment. Other, more recent influences are also at play, and aid his creation of compelling forms. Houseago has cast some of his plaster sculptures in metal, including three bronze masks that were hung on the wall and range in height from 22 to 42 inches. To varying degrees they all recuperate the primitivism of early Picasso, but their dark, nearly black patinas endow them with the contemporary menace of Darth Vader, and two of them possess fleshy beards that suggest the squid-faced Davy Jones (of Pirates of the Caribbean fame). Such anachronisms may remind us that the seeming purity of much modern art was often adulterated by the popular culture of its own day.
Photo: Thomas Houseago: Plaster Gate I, 2009, Tuf-Cal, hemp, iron rebar and wood, 109 by 98 by 33 inches; at Michael Werner.