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.
Thomas Houseago’s first U.S. solo exhibition, “Serpent,” was a promising start for David Kordansky’s new digs in Culver City. Offering partial, exploded views of one of the most sublime works of Western antiquity, Laocoön and His Sons,Houseago has taken a metaphorical chisel to the many myths, theories and satires associated with this Hellenistic sculpture depicting the demise of the ill-fated Trojan priest. Houseago reduces the pyramidal grouping to base units, resulting in nine fragments (all 2008). Except for a small mask in the office, all were located in the main gallery—chunky, disjointed, gouged figures in a variety of mediums (plaster, hemp, iron rebar, redwood, bronze), some standing fully upright but most lying about on plinths. Laocoön’s line from The Aeneid, “Do not trust the Horse, Trojans,” comes to mind.
If it were not for their brazen similarity to modernist warhorses, you’d swear these odds and ends belonged in an institute of antiquities—or in a museum rummage sale, a Cecil B. DeMille prop house or some art forger’s stash of unfinished masters. The figure that truly takes you aback is the tottery, 14-foot-tall bronze Untitled (Red Man). But for the trace of Laocoön’s face, it looks like a hastily completed version of Rodin’s headless, armless Walking Man. The contorted limbs of a second standing figure, a reference to Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, revives a famous Renaissance quarrel over the exact orientation of the Hellenistic statue’s missing arms. Michelangelo thought they were originally bent back over the shoulder, but the official opinion, endorsed by Raphael and enduring up to the last century, opted for a more heroic, outstretched gesture. It was not until 1957, when Laocoön’s right arm was discovered in a builder’s yard in Rome, that Michelangelo was proved right and the statue restored accordingly.
Given his Frankenstein-like endeavor to spark new life in the dead corpus of modernist art, one easily gets Houseago’s Laocoön obsession. “Serpent” is a metaphor not just for the fate that befell Laocoön for attempting to expose the Greek ruse, but for all those writers, philosophers, poets, art critics and con artists through the ages who have found themselves similarly bitten by the theme, from Pliny the Elder, Lessing and Napoleon (who stole the statue from the Vatican) to Clement Greenberg and Ad Reinhardt. But what gives this show real bite is the challenging idea that deep inside every monumental revelation is an attempt to restore something that never existed in the first place. Is this the sting in “Serpent”’s tail, one wonders, or was it hidden inside the Laocoön all along? Houseago makes us eager to investigate further.