Thomas Houseago, A Million Miles Away
Alexander Kennedy looks at the work of sculptor Thomas Houseago and finds Picasso haunting his classically inspired abstractions
It's always suspect to examine the forgotten ‘primitive’ memory of the figurative in Modernism – to return to Modernism's repressed, barely formed ‘wild urges’. When such an attempt is filtered through an ironic, neo-expressionist approach, it’s even more difficult for the viewer to locate the philosophical and cultural contexts behind the work. Thomas Houseago’s exhibition forces the viewer to ask whether the work on display transcends its influences or merely references them.
Houseago’s sculptures re-work many of the stylistic quirks and formal concerns of Cubism. The objects’ armature is exposed revealing all aspects and surfaces in the final form. Yet, Houseago deals almost exclusively with opposites, turning the object inside out and back to front so construction and form become one.
This is evidenced most clearly in ‘Man’, where the towering figure presents its back to the viewer on first entering the gallery. The figure’s backbone and pelvis emerge from the metal pins that hold his torso and legs together, with the result that the internal armature becomes integral to our aesthetic understanding of the piece.
A purist might attack Houseago for asking too much of his materials, which serve as both expressive, worked constituents and raw stuff in their own right, but this fluctuation between both sculptural approaches could also be seen as a strength.
The sense of manufacture as artifice can be found elsewhere in Houseago’s work. In ‘Study for Oedipus’, for instance, materials – pencil, the dripped and scraped plaster-like Tuf-cal, the occasional wash of rusty water – are constantly overlapped. It is difficult to discern the order in which the materials were brought together with the result that these brute forms take on the appearance of sketches.
This is not to say that they are not successful in their own right, but you can’t escape the feeling that they are half-realised, begging to be transformed into monumental bronzes, public sculpture that would not look out of place in front of a university library.
This notion is confirmed in the work on show in the second gallery which uses bronze and aluminium. The four heads in this space are less compelling than those exhibited in the main space, and demonstrate that Houseago’s approach to the connotations and qualities of a material is not completely thought through.
It could be argued that the bronze head (‘Column’) draws on the classical past the artist occasionally references, but how does this idea relate to his use of aluminium?
The Easter Island- inspired, moon-faced monstrosity ‘Carved Head (Base)’ looks ridiculous next to his more considered pieces, wall reliefs such as ‘Clay Echo Mask’ and ‘Study, Face 2’ that refer to and invert Boccioni’s stepped constructions (‘Development of a Bottle in Space’, 1913).
Picasso et al may be a million miles away, as the title of the show infers, but their overwhelming influence is ever present.
Thomas Houseago, A Million Miles Away, The Modern Institute, Glasgow, until Sat 5 Jan