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Monday 14 February 2011

An Unresolved Reminder of the Past: Thomas Houseago @ Modern Art Oxford

Review by Matt Swain

Thomas Houseago is a British contemporary visual artist based in Los Angeles, California. What Went Down is his first major solo exhibition in a UK public gallery. Houeseago’s monumental, figurative sculptures, which are spread across three galleries at Modern Art Oxford, subvert the expectation of sculptural form using lo-fi materials such as plaster, clay and ply-wood.

First impressions are significant and what immediately strikes you is that this is almost a re-imagining of statues, bold and direct, large in scale, grandiose and primitive. The large and intentionally clumsy forms can appear at times almost childlike with a mythical air of translucent fragility, echoed in the origins of Houseago’s work which references styles ranging from Cubism to Futurism.

The centrepiece of the exhibition is undoubtedly the crouching, 3 metres high creation, Baby, which was borne from a mixture of disaster and birth going on in the artist’s life at that time and which also symbolically represents the lifecycle of humans.

Body parts are linked together in implausible ways creating a fractious tension between dimensions and limbs, as with Crouching Figure. Raw edges and crude construction give the pieces a sense of urgency and edginess, conveying personality and movement. This is an imaginary battlefield between the artist and his creations. Disembodied heads serve as a bold statement of intent set against these sombre textures.

Other highlights include Biggest Spoon 1 (Outdoor) and a series of masks that intimately reflect Houseago’s artistic roots, emanating from popular culture amidst layers of other cultural and art historical references. There are clearly a myriad of meanings in Houseago’s work, which are undeniably part of their charm in challenging form and scale. Indeed, it is rare to find volume and mass on this scale which affords such a level of intimacy. Imposing and vulnerable, unresolved and almost unfinished, therein lies a transience which might not otherwise exist.

So what does the work achieve? The message seems to be that ultimately, everything emerges from a raw state and that by definition, anything can be considered transient regardless of size or shape. There is a brutal honesty in this “static movement”, a visual metamorphosis that unfolds before your eyes.

Retrospective? Certainly, but it is an altogether 21st century vision of Modernism that confronts you. By re-imagining and referencing history, Houseago has managed to create something entirely new, blending past, present and future to dramatic effect.

Thomas Houseago What Went Down continues at Modern Art Oxford until 20 February.

Thomas Houseago: What Went Down. Installation view at Modern Art Oxford. Photography by Marcus Leith

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