At Home in Rome – Thomas Houseago’s Monumental Figures


I’d like [visitors] to have a window into the studio and feel an ambition about what sculpture can be, feel the energy, both positively and negatively…these are the things I am trying to do without irony or anything hidden.

The British-born, Los Angeles-based sculptor Thomas Houseago has just come home in Rome! I have known his name, heard him speak and seen his work over the years but all seemed to have remained in the periphery of my consciousness. Suddenly, and unexpectedly seeing the installation of his Roman Figures (6/4 – 7/26, 2013) in the Gagosian Gallery in Rome brought his work into sharp focus – I now see his inspirations, where his art came from.

The Reclining Figure (For Rome) 2013 in the center of the oval-shaped gallery behind a classical, colonnaded façade, off a busy street in the center of Rome speaks of Michelangelo – without the labor and formality of the marble work. Instead, a free, almost impetuous, impromptu figure made of plaster, hemp and supported by exposed rebar speaks of the modern impulse, the performance part, the process of art making.

Houseago thinks of making sculpture without being distracted by the labor of the technique – no endlessly polishing marble or tediously emulating the drape of the garment. He could just as easily insert a jigsaw board, or a drawn piece onto a work.  But his half-hollow sculptural forms are no less monumental and most of all are imbued with the marks of his process, his actions, and most importantly, the sense of movement. Yes, he was thinking of Michelangelo’s actions and movements. And this reclining figure reminds one of The Creation of Adam (1509-1512) in the Sistine Chapel.

But that’s not all. From these muscular movements – directed by neuronal circuits in the brain, largely unconscious – he could move easily to other circuits involving other parts of the brain, like the prefrontal cortex, our executive brain. There it becomes more conceptual and abstract: what if these movements cease? The headless reclining figure suddenly has a head (elsewhere), or symbol of an absent head: His Masks, which can be poignant and majestic, then skids from the banal to the comical.

And he does not forget history, recent or ancient; from moon landing to human evolution, as in his Moon Figure 1, 2010. (Is this a chimp with a satellite dish for a head? Or an astronaut bending down to collect moon rock?) Houseago is equally capable of quiet and stillness. His Coins 2012 recalls not only Roman coins but also Michelangelo’s marble Tondo Pitti, 1504 – 1505 in Florence. But then, Houseago was also thinking of the meaning of currency (money) in today’s art world.

There is no grandiose in the art practice of this West Yorkshireman from Leeds, an industrial city in the north of England. He is every bit plain spoken, no nonsense, no irony – just doing things with the hands like everyone else, he says. He compares Leeds to Gary, Indiana.

He freely acknowledges fascination with just about anything: from comic books to Henry Moore to African masks, tribal mythology, cartoon imagery, Italian Mannerism, Cubism, science fiction, robots… He talks about being a child on a school trip to see Henry Moore’s sculptures in the Yorkshire Moors… and his dream come true of his current project at New York’s Storm King sculpture park (5/4 – 11/11/2013).

Equally indebted to just about all artists he had been drawn to, formally or conceptually, his list goes on: Rodin, Brancusi, Franz West, Paul McCarthy, Calder, Picasso, David Smith, Mike Kelly, even the 18C English landscape architect, Capability Brown… One can feel the presence of all and every one of them in his wide-ranging oeuvre and it feels delicious and exhilarating – liberating! How does one connect Joseph Beuys to Auguste Rodin? They both use the body and talk about its actions, Houseago declares. For him, art is truly for ‘Every Body’.

When he moved to Los Angeles in 2003, flat broke, he worked in construction on a building where his studio was located in East Los Angeles,  paying rent with his labor. That was where he met many of the men who still work with him today.

They were a full on labor crew, hardcore. Some of the guys were interested in what I was doing because I had a room in this weird building and I was working during the evenings, nights and weekends. It’s strange some people get art and some people just don’t. I’ve got friends who just don’t get it and some do. It really doesn’t matter the background. You can see if it just resonates with [them] or not

As you might suspect, Houseago is not one to seek comfort. He enjoys the challenge of doing the impossible, testing the boundary between figuration and abstraction, and seeking ‘danger and instability’. He has no problem admitting to drinking and getting expelled from school until he found art. During a residency in Marfa, Texas, at artist Donald Judd’s former home and studio, he and artist friend Aaron Curry mostly drank (from morning to night) and played with childish material, felt and glue. He recalls:

[His gallerist] at that time—kind of saved those pieces… I was kind of rejecting them. And then as time went on, the years passed, I realized that that was really significant, and was kind of an outlet. That work had something in it that had something to do with that two weeks–or more, maybe two months–of behavioral weirdness… I’ve made “feltys” that then feel like sanitized versions of that “felty.”… There was the whole thing that was going through my mind at that time …abstraction and language and figuration kind of collide.

…[I have] always struggled with how to explain something because you should be able to, right? And use language and not just be this kind of grunting expressionist: “Rar!” … And yet this feeling of some bigger, more powerful thing that breaks down these signs and symbols and signifiers. And to be an artist needing to have an idea of mystery…

Here he is no doubt wondering about how our brain/body, our whole consciousness converts an image to language description and vice versa. How does an artist explain his work? What is the limit of language? Of image? But most of an artist’s work comes from the unconscious. Any conscious, or explicit art would likely be shallow and very limited and uninteresting – that much I can just about say with certainty, from what we now know about our unconscious and how it can be accessed. Houseago also touches upon projection, or “beholder’s share” in viewing art, or any image:

The S-bend for me, I began really seeing in people’s faces. It was almost like every time I drew a face, an “S” would come. Or a coin would come, which is an “O”, which is also a coin… I began to see all these symbols at that time and I began to see that was linked to my idea of a thing that I could say that’s an “S” and that’s an “O.” And the parts that were sort of morphing out of that…what did the face look like for me. When I looked at a face I saw signs and symbols that someone in the 1920s didn’t see. Or when I see a face, I see Cubism in a face, right now we all do. We also see cinema in a face, we also see advertising in a face. We see all these things now that artists not even that long ago didn’t see. They looked at a face differently. [Alberto] Giacometti looked at face differently from how I look at a face. He had a different set of projections that were going on… I’m still not sure it’s that simple.

Very few artists would admit to excessive drinking. But let’s face it, alcohol removes inhibition at the same time it impedes the formation and recall of explicit memory (mostly conscious and self-protecting), allowing deep-seated implicit memory and associations to bubble up.*  Art or any creative act must draw on this deep unconscious memory, which is at least 98% of us. Relaxation, neurobiology has found, is a necessary condition.

How does he keep it all together – with a busy exhibition schedule and a practice involving much heavy construction work? He draws. 

I draw every single day. And that’s not an effort, not something I feel I should do, or I’m getting better at or not better at. It’s literally for me like some people do yoga. Drawing for me is a way of calming down and focusing, and balancing myself in the world, and reminding myself of what’s up and down.

Right, drawing as yoga! Of course drawing also involves muscle movements, but quicker and smaller ones so he can experiment with more forms and ideas – which are really one and the same during the act of drawing – he says 

I lay out ideas. I lay out ideas for shows, I lay out ideas that are ten years and twenty years in the making. I’m thinking in a twenty or thirty year time span in the drawings sometimes. That’s why I keep it very close to me ‘cause they‘re kind of guides for those times coming up and for a body of work or for a show that hasn’t presented itself yet. You’re kind of setting up, “Oh, if I ever get this opportunity, I would do this thing.” So in that way, they’re not really, again, they’re not really finished in that sense of “Ta-da! Look at my drawings!”   

He considers his art as unfinished work – his dream is to be like David Smith at Bolton Landing (New York), to be creating his own ongoing dialog with the landscape with pieces of his creation. I hope it will be a landscape somewhere in Los Angeles! **

NB  I added the emphases in the quoted passages above.


*   For a brief description of implicit and explicit memory and their role in learning, see Information = Knowledge?  (Scroll half way down to paragraph beginning The actor Michael Caine once told …)

**  He expresses his fondness for Los Angeles and attributes his success to Los Angeles’ “raw and elemental; animalistic and dangerous” vibe. I don’t think that’s how residents in the city would describe it. But within a 30 minute drive, one can go from Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills north to the wilderness and rattlesnake territories of the Angeles National Forest, or west towards the coast to the rustic Topanga Canyon in the Santa Monica Mountains, where many artists and old hippies reside and where hiking trails abound.

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