THOMAS HOUSEAGO ’S ART PRACTICE could be seen as what happens when you take an unabashedly classical, figurative approach to making sculpture and you transplant it to Los Angeles. From a distance, his white plaster figures suggest the undulating shapes of Henry Moore’s abstractions. The faces are primitive-looking, drawn on masks that recall other modernist forebears such as Picasso. The limbs are similarly delineated by dense pencil marks on fl at plaster planes, creating a strange tension between the two-dimensional and three-dimensional. Yet move in for a closer inspection and the forms don’t look quite so pure: drill holes abound, and the slabs of plaster are held in place by crude iron bolts. The trace of the sculptor’s hand is to be seen everywhere. Then, around the back of one work, a faecal deluge of plaster has dried into messy rivulets. Art history has collided face-first with the unsavoury aspects of human existence that come to the fore in LA, a twisted mix of the classical and the abject.
Houseago in fact hails from Leeds, the same hometown as Moore. His confidence with his references is the result of an involved journey through the ideas that have haunted contemporary artists since the early 1990s. In a recent interview he recalled the atmosphere during his time at St Martins as one of heavy theorising about postmodern endgames and the death of everything. Fleeing this sense of absolutism in the London artworld, he went to study at De Ateliers, in Amsterdam, where he still shows with Galerie Fons Welters, before moving to Brussels. It was in Brussels that he fully developed his idea of what it meant to be a studio-based artist, removing himself from the fray to concentrate on his own ideas.
He has now been on the West Coast for four years, developing sculpture that on the one hand seems to sit apart from the current LA scene. Yet while he has followed an individualistic engagement with the material’s messy nature, in that very act of scatological freeplay the work is brought back round to local figures like Paul McCarthy. Houseago’s recent combination of drawing and sculpture created for the Rubell’s Red Eye show at Art Basel Miami Beach last year also reveals a new openness to chance elements that he attributes to LA: Tuf-Cal, the synthetic alternative to plaster of Paris used on the West Coast, was found to pick up the trace of his drawings in a far more profound way. A show with Georg Herold at David Kordansky Gallery later this year promises to further his intriguing explorations of the two media. “I think every time someone approaches sculpture, you have to completely re-breathe it,” he says.
This article was first published in the March 2007 issue.