PRINT October 2015


Thomas Houseago

Thomas Houseago, Masks (Pentagon), 2015, Tuf-Cal, hemp, iron rebar, steel, redwood. Installation view, Rockefeller Center, New York.

STYLE REFLECTS CHARACTER. It’s the aggregate of choices one has made, consciously or not, regarding art that came before.

I remember an episode of The Sopranos that goes something like this: Mobster Johnny’s life sentence just got a lot shorter. We see him in the prison hospital as he learns he has late-stage cancer. Tough break. The hospital orderly, also a lifer (played with touching eagerness by director Sydney Pollack), was an oncologist on the outside. The unlikeliness of the two men occupying the same room is heavy in the air. Patient and orderly start talking. Holding a mop in one hand, the doc looks at Johnny’s chart and offers a second, more hopeful opinion. The conversation turns to what the doctor is in for. “I shot my wife’s lover,” he says matter-of-factly. “Shot her too, and then a couple of other people.” Mobster Johnny’s incredulous: “That was stupid—why did you shoot the others? If you’d just shot the boyfriend, you might have got off with aggravated manslaughter—maybe do eight years, get out on parole. Now you’re fucked.” “Well,” says the doc, “once I shot him, I couldn’t leave a witness, so I shot her too. And then these two guys rush into the room—this was at the Plaza—and I figured I was already so far in, my only chance was to just keep on going. So I took out the two security guys. Now I’m in here.” Thomas Houseago’s work reminds me of that scene.

When the stylistic hegemony of midcentury formalism, with its idea of progress and Hegelian inevitability, started to deflate and finally collapsed sometime in the mid-1970s, the art world was like Palmyra after the collateral damage. Modernism’s long reign was also a kind of de facto repression; its core mechanism was exclusion. This but not that; get rid of all unnecessary froufrou. But unnecessary to whom? Formalism was a more successful Maginot Line against the chaos of subjectivity. When it crumbled, no one wanted to be left behind to defend it. And art, like nature, does abhor a vacuum; all sorts of things rushed in to fill the gap left by high modernism’s receding tide. Art that would have looked comfortably at home in one of the lesser national pavilions at Venice in, say, 1954 or 1964 or even 1970, in places that fostered art with humanistic, sick-soul-of-man-type imagery; painting and sculpture meant to reflect man’s existential condition; art styled into a shamanistic, avatar brutalism—all this and more was let in through the front gate. Provincialism—art that looks to the metropole, adding its own local dialect to the available permissions—has always been part of the ecology. (Sometimes it turns out to be great.) Provincialism is the mechanism by which a dominant style is disseminated; it’s also how an economic influence is maintained, almost like a form of taxation, a tax on the mind. Amid today’s postformalist Internet leveling there is no meaningful distinction between client state and capital. And though the imagery and stylistic vocabulary of the provinces, cut off from their model, now feel arbitrary, they can go, and in fact are welcomed, everywhere.

Thomas Houseago is a British sculptor who makes skullish, masklike forms from the palest cream-colored plaster. Their surfaces are seductive, semismooth or roughed up, and pleasingly matte—they resemble Jean-Michel Frank’s lamp bases of the ’30s. Houseago’s forms reach for an archeological, even mythological realm. Borrowing from ancient Greek sculpture—heavy ropes of modeling clay as hair, eyes as hollowed-out sockets—these mask heads have a severe, glum aspect. Their glowering countenances might scare a small child.

Masks (Pentagon), 2015, which was installed at Rockefeller Center in New York this past spring in a presentation organized by Tishman Speyer and Public Art Fund, is made up of five enormous, outlined skull shapes that touch at their edges to form an empty space in the center. The skulls become increasingly “abstracted”; one is an intersection of jagged linear shapes. Like a modern-day plaster Stonehenge, the grove of heads begs to be decoded—ask your local druid—but to what end would be hard to say.

Houseago has a few tools to convince us of his seriousness. The principal one is size. If something is dull or camp at three or five feet, one can try blowing it up to sixteen feet, or repeating it in a sequence stretching over an even larger area, or both. But scaling up a form comes with problems of its own. Sculptors since the Renaissance have had to deal with the greatly enlarged model: Venetian horses, Roman emperors, etc. It’s not as easy as it looks.

Masks (Pentagon), modeled as it was out of clay and cardboard, might have had a certain craggy charm at tabletop scale. There’s the stepped-back wafer construction used to build up a certain thickness of the skull; the lumpy ropes of clay heaped on the heavy brow; the tweaked bit of clay that forms a mobile nose, flattened to one side; the little raised line laid underneath the nose to create a tight-lipped mouth—it’s a regular Rocky Marciano of clay. But the appeal evaporates in the lumbering enlargement. With Houseago’s art, we get to the punch line before he finishes telling the joke; the audience is way out in front.

Houseago’s other idea is to show us how an image can be deconstructed along Cubist principles: Reduce the thing to a few jagged lines, make them intersect, and boom—you’ve got a jazzy abstract head to add to the fun. This idea was already ripe for parody in 1974 when Roy Lichtenstein made sport of it in his abstracted cow paintings.

The problem is that the image base, the imaginative foundation on which Houseago’s images are built, feels borrowed, generic. Most things in art are derived from a chain of influence; the question is, What’s behind the borrowing? Imagewise, the heads have an aura of the archaeological kitsch found in video games and cartoons; you feel like Houseago wants to say something about the way such images reach back across time to connect us with their original meaning. Fragments of armor, helmets, bared teeth and torsos—the forms are meant to look heroic, like something excavated at Knossos. But their ponderous theatricality is not that of the ancients—it feels trumped up. Houseago’s sculptures lack a persuasive personality; it’s like someone yelling too loudly because they’re afraid of not being heard. In its materials and its casual fidelity to a drawn image, Houseago’s art wants to look like something that made itself, but it doesn’t have that kind of abandon. The heroic authenticity of antiquity, the mute awe and dust of ages long past, is just what I don’t find myself thinking about with his grove of heads.

In “The Medusa and Other Heads,” a concurrent show at Gagosian Gallery, Algol Head, 2015, featured a head that sits on its rough-hewn yet too elaborate base in such a way as to expose another problem. Rather than engineer the head to stand upright on its base from one hidden anchor point, Houseago placed triangular wooden shims under the plaster mask at three points along its curved edge to get it to stand upright. The little shims are just distracting. The wooden pedestal itself is made up of a sequence of triangular forms for no apparent reason other than that its bulging waistline sort of echoes Brancusi, or Native American totem poles. Houseago’s work, with its heroic scale and existential themes, its repetition and insistence on its own humanistic exceptionalism, mostly just wears me out.

David Salle is a New York–based artist.