London

View of “Than Hussein Clark,” 2015. From foreground: Than Hussein Clark, Cancellation-Microphone, 2015; Than Hussein Clark, KonninGratz/Himachuri/Konningratz/HimiChuri, 2013; Enrico David, Untitled, 2013. Photo: Mark Blower.

View of “Than Hussein Clark,” 2015. From foreground: Than Hussein Clark, Cancellation-Microphone, 2015; Than Hussein Clark, KonninGratz/Himachuri/Konningratz/HimiChuri, 2013; Enrico David, Untitled, 2013. Photo: Mark Blower.

Than Hussein Clark

DRAF (David Roberts Art Foundation)

View of “Than Hussein Clark,” 2015. From foreground: Than Hussein Clark, Cancellation-Microphone, 2015; Than Hussein Clark, KonninGratz/Himachuri/Konningratz/HimiChuri, 2013; Enrico David, Untitled, 2013. Photo: Mark Blower.

It’s generally sound advice: Young artists should avoid curating themselves into group shows. Than Hussein Clark turned this adage on its head in “The Violet Crab at DRAF,” a presentation of seventy-six works by forty-one other artists—most from the David Roberts Collection—and one lab-grown alum crystal on loan from the University College London Geology Collection, along with forty-two of Clark’s own pieces. Under the tripartite rubric of “deviance, extravagance, and ventriloquism,” Clark mobilized the history of cabaret as a physical place and as a set of aesthetic practices. His elaborate staging became a framework for destabilizing distinctions between art and design, furniture and sculpture, exhibition and stage set, past and present.

Entering the fictional nightclub the Violet Crab through the cloakroom, visitors immediately encountered some of the show’s recurrent elements: vintage photographs of women (here Faye Dunaway by Jerry Schatzberg, prostitutes by Burt Glinn, and carnival strippers by Susan Meiselas; elsewhere Marilyn Monroe by Andre de Dienes and nudes by Helmut Newton, Jim Goldberg, and Erich Hartmann); Carter Mull’s printed-fabric and flower-arrangement sculpture Chase / (The Tribune Company) / Los Angeles Times, 2014, and Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Still (Untitled #504), 1977/2011 (works from both series appeared throughout the exhibition); a pair of delicate turn-of-the-century drawings by English Arts and Crafts painter Joseph Edward Southall (a third drawing appeared in another space toward the end of the show); and more. These were installed among sculpture and furniture of Clark’s own design, including a French-oak-and-steel table and stools, a painted parlor grand piano (topped with Niki de Saint Phalle’s Nana, ca. 1972, which appears prominently in her 1972 film Daddy, made in collaboration with filmmaker Peter Whitehead), appliqué velour curtains, and a large tufted wool carpet that functioned as both decor and plinth. The body—usually female, often eroticized—quickly emerged as the leitmotif of the exhibition.

Next, visitors encountered the inspired pairing of John Cecil Stephenson’s biomorphic-architectonic abstract painting Sketch for Solar House, 1955, and François-Xavier Lalanne’s Hippopotame II (bar), 1976, a fantastical bronze, copper, stainless steel, and wood bar in the form of a hippopotamus. The “main stage” revealed a second painted piano and a large woolen rug (KonninGratz/Himachuri/Konningratz/HimiChuri, 2013), this time placed atop a large stage, the rear wall of which bore Enrico David’s large painting Untitled, 2013, its ostensible protagonist’s face echoed by Emily Young’s massive onyx sculpture Archangel I, 2004, which sat on the stage like an oversize update of Medardo Rosso.

Nearby, Clark’s Cancellation-Microphone, 2015, reconfigured a 1907 Josef Hoffmann Cabaret Fledermaus chair into a quasi-figural onstage performer. Its back cut out and cinched together at the middle with purple silk rope like a corset, Cancellation-Microphone continued Clark’s practice of deconstructing and reassembling the works of other artists into new sculptural forms. But here in London, he seemed to do so less aggressively than in past exhibitions. In a 2013 show at Mathew Gallery in Berlin, for instance, Clark’s dismemberment of Edmund de Waal’s ceramics bore a strong tinge of animosity. In London, a similar operation performed on Hoffmann’s chair appeared as a kind of homage: cabaret chairs transformed into cabaret dancers, perhaps?

Indeed, throughout the exhibition, one was struck by the breadth and generosity of Clark’s curatorial eye. While his exhibition design tended to absorb individual works into his own sometimes totalizing aesthetic, his gift for mise-en-scène created often unexpected formal and conceptual echoes, even between pieces located rooms away from one another. One is tempted to compare Clark to a figure like Jack Smith on the basis of their shared fondness for the outmoded and the flamboyantly theatrical, but Clark’s sensibility is too erudite, his taste too rarefied. Rather than history returning as a moldy ruin, as it did in Smith’s work, here it rushes back with its full powers intact, even enhanced. If the lobster was the parasitic bogeyman of Smith’s aesthetic universe, in Clark’s hands the violet crab would appear to be its more sympathetic crustacean counterpart.

Jacob Proctor