Bringing the Monument Back to Life

Thomas Houseago’s towering figures are monuments that tackle monumentality. The gargantuan Red Man that greets me when I walk into David Kordansky Gallery seems at first threatening; it is bigger than I am, more creature than human, and monstrous in many senses of the word. It reminds me, at first glance, of a crudely crafted god, a fetishistic relic passed down from an ancient civilization, and the figure’s vulnerability quickly overrides its size.

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Houseago’s approach to monumental figuration slightly resembles that oft repeated children movie plot in which the young protagonists realize that even over-sized villains want to be loved. However, my experience with Houseago’s figures is neither silly nor childish. I am asked, quite seriously, to confront the emotional volatility of these objects. What do these sculptures want?

The exhibition is titled Serpent after the snake Minerva released upon the Trojan priest Laocoon. Laocoon, distrusting any gift from the Greeks and underestimating the power of objects, struck the Trojan horse with a stick. His blunder cost him his life and the lives of his two sons when Minerva sent a serpent to strangle them. The story’s moral: beware the allegiances, weaknesses, and desires of things. While it wasn’t literally the horse that retaliated, the wooden beast was the embodiment of too many precarious feelings and the brain child of too many vested men and deities to make striking it safe.

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Standing at the center of the gallery, Untitled (Red Man) is certainly the centerpiece of Houseago’s show. He doesn’t dominate out of gusto; rather, the exposed idiosyncrasies of Red Man’s big bronze body make him heart-wrenchingly compelling.

Red Man‘s left leg is shorter than his right and the bolt anchoring him to the floor clearly protrudes from the bottom of his left foot. His hefty right hand hangs against his gangly right leg, while his sleeker left fist is clenched. His genitals look like they emerged accidentally, maybe because a little extra material dripped down off of the torso. He has no neck and the chin of his face droops below his shoulders. Along with most of the sculptures in the exhibition, Red Man‘s backside is undeveloped, just as nuanced pieces on film sets might be blank from every angle the camera never sees. Isn’t the backside, the side you can’t glimpse unless you’re lucky enough to have eyes embedded on both sides of your head, a body’s ultimate weakness anyway?

Nancy Spero, whose modestly sized drawings of feminine bombs argued that smallness could be powerful, opposes huge artworks, especially those made by steel-crazy men like Richard Serra. “I’m trying to break down the authority they imply,” she told writer Michael Kimmelman in 1997. “And maybe this authority has to do with masculinity.” Even when she opts for longer, scroll-like grounds, Spero’s figures stay subversively small. Houseago breaks down authority too, but in different way. By making monumentality vulnerable, he has dealt a decisive blow to masculine authority.

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If not for his missing head, the untitled figure behind Red Man, reclining like a Greek god, might have presided over the gallery. His toplessness, however, curbs his Dionysian zeal. All of Houseago’s sculptures reference cultural constructs, both old and new, in one way or another. And all of these constructs have somehow been impaired. Or maybe they’ve just been re-birthed, allowed to come back to life as long as they relinquish their stalwart facades.

Houseago challenges extinction. His materials–bronze, redwood, plaster–are traditional and outdated, but no where near as outdated as the figures these materials portray. Yet, despite their “primitive” ungainliness, Houseago’s figures are very much aware of their presence in the twenty-first century. They’re aware of the fact that they’re on display and they look like they were birthed with modern exhibition spaces in mind. One untitled sculpture poses as if in a Vogue fashion shoot, an angular arm on its hip and another behind its head. A bronze mask displayed atop an unpolished redwood pedestal calls to mind a heavy handed, non-functional experiment in Darth Vader cybernetics.

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W.T.J. Mitchell includes a striking illustration in his book What do Picture Want? An image from an 1854 edition of the London Illustrated News, called “Dinner in the Mould of the Iguanodon,” depicts a group of “modern” men dining in the constructed shell of an extinct reptile. The replica of the animal shows the men’s mastery of science, but, strangely, they want to feel physically, primordially dependent upon their own discovery. “It’s not that the animal image has performed a miraculous rebirth of an extinct creature,” writes Mitchell, “but that the creators of the image, the new breed of modern, scientific men have somehow been begotten out of the belly of this bestial image.”

Maybe this is what it means to subvert monumentality. To reject the impenetrable facade of over-sized objects and to reject the man-is-infallible attitude of modernity but to accept that monstrous, visceral figures still have an absurdly powerful sway over us. Houseago’s Serpent provides a physical experience, bringing the monument back to life as a tribute, not to strength, but to overwhelming vulnerability.