New York

Huma Bhabha

Salon 94/Salon 94 Freemans/ATM Gallery

If figurative painting seems to have recovered from the long siege laid to it by the popularity of minimalist, conceptual, and new-media practices, the same cannot yet be said of figurative sculpture. Despite the continued prominence of senior artists like Stephan Balkenhol and Thomas Schütte, and that of a coterie of emergent practitioners including Thomas Houseago, Rebecca Warren, and Matthew Monahan, it remains unusual for a young sculptor to commit to modeling the human form. Huma Bhabha’s remarkable third New York solo exhibition, spread across three venues, proved by the impressive breadth of its references not only the artist’s ambition but also the value in leapfrogging the last half-century of art history to appeal instead to longer-established precedents. In this show, the construction-site formalism of much recent abstract sculpture (e.g., Gedi Sibony or Ian Pedigo) was electrified by being plugged into history and myth.

A lone sculpture comprising two figures that rise from a large, low pedestal occupied Salon 94’s uptown venue. . . . And in the track if a hundred thousand years, out of the heart of dust / Hope sprang again, like greenness, 2007, has a blocky, wood-shop geometry in which clay, wire, painted Styrofoam, ash, leaves, and other materials combine to give the work a Janus-like quality: It simultaneously looks forward to a postapocalyptic age in which life is cobbled together from sifted remains and backward to an era in which objects possessed talismanic qualities. The two figures, both missing their backs, would, if fused, create an image of the god of gates, doorways, beginnings, and endings. The sculpture’s form also brings to mind H. C. Westermann’s gawky figures, though Bhabha leaves far greater trace of her own hand than did Westermann. . . . And in the track proves she has a keen eye for material juxtaposition, as attested by the craquelure of air-dried clay pressed into chicken wire on one figure’s head, or the narrow metal tube that winds sinuously throughout its body, contrasting with its primarily organic components.

Bhabha presented three smaller sculptures at Salon 94’s new Lower East Side outpost. Here the same materials were employed with equal facility to create a sarcophagus, a bust, and a pair of amputated feet. The sarcophagus, The Immortal Story, 2007, lay in the center of the gallery, exposing a rusted-tailpipe backbone. One leg ends not with a foot but with an elephant head, suggesting perhaps that its decay would lead, in the end, to metamorphosis rather than disintegration. Nearby, the two ungainly feet, likewise possessing skins of clay stretched over wood-and-chicken-wire armatures, stood one in front of the other on a tall pedestal. (At ATM Gallery, four large-scale photographs depicted a similar sculpture out for a walk in various sun-dappled landscapes.) The small bust, They Don’t Speak, 2007, seemed somewhat like a death mask, with a chisel for a nose, and small chicken feet keeping it stabilized on its wood-block base.

For an exhibition of four sculptures and four photographs to conjure Egyptian coffins and New York’s gritty landscape; artists as diverse as Westermann, Philip Guston, and Alberto Giacometti, to choose only relatively recent examples; and tribal cultures and alien life forms is quite a feat. So surefooted an outing leaves one eager to see how Bhabha will undertake the necessary task of her next exhibition: tracing a path through the broad swath of history to which this exhibition so successfully laid claim.

Brian Sholis