In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Thomas Houseago sought out his own Ground Zero. Renouncing irony and abundance of critical theory, he manoeuvred a return to a brutish expressive embodiment of the figure as a method for addressing personal experience.
The resulting sculptures formed a confrontational excess of creative exuberance, a kind of anarchistic verve and a romantic political strategy for opposing the commodification and homogenisation of subjective experience and difference under advanced contemporary capitalism.
This latest exhibition, A Million Miles Away, follows closely along these lines, working with an established visual vocabulary of monumentalised human form and an enjoyably performative simplicity of expressive means.
‘Woman’, 2007, is an anonymous and faceless golem, opposing itself to the viewer with front foot forward modestly posing. Houseago uses direct, simple and formal methods of construction derived from the history of sculpture.
The front leg, torso and head of ‘Woman’ are formed from flat planes of plaster, confrontational bulks reminiscent of the flat lines of classical wall reliefs. From the side, the linear outlines refer back to those of Michelangelo or Rodin. As well as formal allusion, this serves as a means of wearing the execution of their making on their sleeve. ‘Woman’ is effectively constructed like a sandwich board—one flat plane of a leg facing forward, the other facing back, each supporting the sculpture’s weight.
These historical visual references also bring an attendant slippage between optic and haptic experience that Houseago exploits playfully. ‘Woman’ has a muscley arm that sits contraposto against the flat plane of her body. There is a jarring exaggeration here?and a kind of clunky embarrassment at the formal impurity, but it also emulates a malfunctioning focusing of the eye—separating out the ‘part objects’ of the body whole—a sort of synaesthesia between the consuming eye and the memory of physical experience. The viewer is recast as both the desiring infant and as child amongst towering adults.
In the centre of the room there is a stand-off between a monumental eight-foot ‘thinker’ titled ‘Study for Oedipus’, 2007, and another giant hearty stalwart tapping his belly.
The former, resting his front foot on piled wooden blocks, stretches out his hand, beckoning or victoriously thoughtful, part lumberjack part grand orator. The latter’s intransigence before this Oedipal theorist, is completed through its apparent facelessness—it either wears a primitive wooden mask or its head is rendered in a kind of failed cubist mess.
Forming a gathering around these figures are assorted reliefs and sculpture similarly traversing the ground between primitivism, cubism and the totemic.
This trail of signified anarchy and combative expressionism is enjoyable, but can its appeal to the physical as indefinable nugget of experience be a credible philosophy for an opposition to a globalised culture?
Houseago has often referred to the alienation of experience in a post-industrial and idea-based economy. But a re-connection to romantic resistance through expressionism seems like opting for the local against the global, a misaligned stance rather than an attempt to analyse and confront the determining powers that structure contemporary experience.
‘Carved Head (Base)’, 2007, found amongst a group of head and mask sculptures in the smaller second space, might illustrate this retreat. An aluminium cast of a small totem-like head carved from a wooden stump, it is possible to imagine this piece as both an invitation to think of the artist brutally carving the visage out of metal and as an inversion of Roy Lichenstein’s painting of a brush mark.
If we are to think of the latter then it would be by almost bullying machismo that Lichenstein’s reduction of expressive mark to codified symbol is flipped back over. An unveiling of the relativity of critical systems or a romantic bodily resistance to the readymade doomed to stubborn failure?
Darren Rhymes is a writer based in Glasgow