The sculptures in Thomas Houseago’s first New York solo show defy reigning art trends by embracing monumentality, mining art history for subject matter without being overacademic or self-conscious, and conveying meaning without detailed background info. None have the commanding presence or shape-shifting potential of the artist’s towering Baby, a standout in the current Whitney Biennial. But his totemic and iconic pieces, made with labored simplicity, plumb life’s mysteries with hopeful optimism.
A line of skulls just inside the gallery would be grim if not for their wealth of associations, from Darth Vader’s mask to Picasso’s haunting late self-portraits. Jonathan Meese’s Cubist-indebted faces come to mind, but Houseago’s heads are more in keeping with the simple, alien grotesquery of Ugo Rondinone’s all-black visages. With their hollow, zombie eyes, quizzical semi-squints and fingerlike ropes of flesh on their faces, the figures float between life and death, pop culture and high art.
The show itself ambitiously aims to be many things at once—figurative and abstract, humorous and serious, historical and contemporary—but it feels crowded and thematically discordant at times. It’s tempting to hunt for humanist metaphors to tie together pieces like the two giant spoons à la Claes Oldenburg (nourishment?) and the Brancusi-like totem with bird’s head/bike helmet on top (spirituality?). Other objects make more fruitful associations: A repeated circle pattern appearing in a ghoulish face, a geometric frieze, and a sculpture representing sunrise and sunset merges personal and cosmic concerns, connecting dark souls to shining celestial bodies—and speaking for art’s ability to enlighten.
Originally published in Time Out New York, issue 764, May 20 – 26, 2010.