Thomas Houseago sketching at his studio in Los Angeles surrounded by art works in progress. The building houses drawing and sculpture studios plus offices where the artist employs 20 staff. Photograph by Spencer Lowell
Taking the art world by storm, LA-based British artist Thomas Houseago creates hulking sculptures in plaster, hemp, iron and bronze. Inspired by African art and Modern masters from Rodin to Picasso, the figurative sculptures are full of brute emotive power. Houseago's new exhibition Roman Figures opens in Rome at the Gagosian Gallery, reports Jeanne-Marie Cilento
A few minutes before the end of the opening of the new Thomas Houseago exhibition at the Gagosian Gallery, the red-haired artist bounds up the stairs to be immediately surrounded by a scrum of waiting journalists and Roman VIPs (pronounced like “zips” in Italian). It takes Houseago ten minutes to glad-hand the crowd in the gallery’s vestibule before he begins to look flustered by the people pressing around him and murmurs, “Where can I get a drink in this place?”
Walking up the hill of Via Francesco Crispi you can see the gallery's imposing neo-classical facade rising splendidly above the street. Despite its massive fluted columns, the rich Art Deco iconography of the building owes more to New York than to the classical ruins of the Eternal City. A suitable base for the first of Larry Gagosian’s galleries to open in Europe after his successful New York and London ventures. Built in 1921, the Rome gallery was originally a bank and was redesigned by architect Firouz Galdo with Caruso St John in 2007, transforming the classical space into a state-of-the-art contemporary gallery.
At the Roman Figures opening, Thomas Houseago is eventually swept into the great oval space of the main gallery on a river of people dressed in the kind of artistically odd clothes the conservative Romans habitually avoid. The artist is confronted by his massive reclining sculpture that dominates the space. The dynamic curve of the enormous ovoid room embraces the sculptural plaster heads hung along the walls looking like mammoth sculls, forming a macabre classical chorus to the sculpture at the centre of the room.
The giant reclining form recalls both the Dying Gaul in the Capitoline Museums and the rough musculature of Michelangelo's rippling sculptures. Cast in plaster and hemp from a clay form, inside the figure’s iron supports are visible. While the sculpture looks smooth and finished from one side, walking around to the other you see clearly the crude armature. Called Reclining Figure (For Rome) the headless body rests prone on a plywood plinth, its surfaces visibly ruffled and smoothed by the artist’s hands and feet. “I am fascinated by the act of making art," says Houseago. "And in a broad sense, by how an artist responds to the world. I want to get rid of the readymade and figure out how I react to the world."
Apart from the large-scale sculpture Reclining Figure, the Roman Figures exhibition includes seven sculpted masks plus Walking Boy on Plinth, all done in 2013. The Roman Masks build upon the Western modernist interest in spiritually charged tribal objects from Africa and the South Pacific. Crafted from clay, cast into plaster and hemp, and reinforced with iron armatures, the skull-like reliefs have an abstract, expressive power.
As an artist, Houseago wrests new vitality from the classical figure and engages in a dialogue with the past, retracing the history of figurative sculpture through his own contemporary experience. He draws upon classical mythology, tribal art, Hanna-Barbera cartoons, Italian Mannerism as well as science fiction figures like Darth Vader. The churning surfaces of his sculptures are from jagged cuts and from the artist using his hands and feet to create his works. Houseago sometimes includes paper drawings as part of the sculpture. Powerful and emotive, the figures feel both ancient and modern and embody the existential trauma of everyday life.
Houseago explained to Design & Art Magazine that the Rome sculptures grew out of a difficult time in his life. He certainly had a very challenging start as a young boy and student in Yorkshire but has had an extraordinarily fast-track career to success in the last ten years. Brought up in a working-class family in Leeds, Houseago left for London at 19 years old to attend Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design. Later he studied at De Ateliers in Amsterdam where he met artist Matthew Monahan and his future wife, painter Amy Bessone.
A decade ago he was a struggling British artist living in Brussels with bankruptcy looming. But Houseago decided to change direction pack up his life, destroy his old work and leave Europe to make a new start in Los Angeles. "Now everyone thinks I was being canny and strategic by moving to LA," the artist has said. "But in fact it was an act of desperation."
He had $300 when he arrived in Los Angeles in 2003 and now his work commands tens of thousands of dollars. Today, at his large studio building in East Los Angeles, Houseago employs a staff of 20 and has five foundries in the US casting his sculptures in plaster or clay and into bronze. His work has been exhibited at the Whitney Biennial and at the Museum of Contemporary in LA, the Stedelijk in Amsterdam as well as at Venice's Palazzo Grassi and prestigious private galleries in London, Zurich, Brussels and New York.
Back in Rome, Houseago moves quickly through the Gagosian's main gallery at the opening of his show and disappears through a large, swivelling door to celebrate the sale of several of his large works that night. The Roman crowd begins to disperse and wander out into the cool grey twilight. Outside the soaring columned entrance of the Gagosian, suited drivers lounge against their black Mercedes smoking, waiting for their charges to exit.
Roman Figures is at the Gagosian Gallery from Tuesday June 4th until July 26th 2013 at Via Francesco Crispi 16, 00187 Rome Italy. The gallery is open: Monday–Friday 10.30am-7:00pm and by appointment. Telephone: +39 06 420 86498. Thomas Houseago's Striding Figure/Standing Figure is also concurrently running in Rome at the Galleria Borhese until July 7th 2013.
Click on photographs for full-screen slideshow
|The opening of Thomas Houseago's new show Roman Figures at the Gagosian Gallery. Photograph by Ambrosio De Lauro|
|Thomas Houseago's show in Rome with the Reclining Figure (For Rome) at the centre of the great ovoid room. The unfinished side of the sculpture shows the rough plaster and iron armature inside. Photograph by Ambrosio De Lauro|
|Untitled (Walking Boy on a Plinth) 2013 Plaster, hemp, iron and redwood 208x76.2x81.3cm. Photograph by Ambrosio De Lauro|
|Roman Masks II 2013 Plaster, hemp and iron 75.5x58x29.7cm. Photograph by Ambrosio De Lauro|
|Yet to be Titled (Hollow nose mask) 2013 Plaster, hemp and iron 67.6x53.8x21.7cm. Photograph by Ambrosio De Lauro|
|The splendid fluted columns at the entrance to the Gagosian Gallery in Rome. Originally built in 1921 as a bank, the gallery was created in 2007 by architects Firouz Galdo and Caruso St John. Photograph by Ambrosio De Lauro|
|First Light 2006 Tuf-cal, hemp, iron, clay and graphite 154.8x111.7x147.3cm|
|Untitled (Red Man) 2008 Bronze 362.2x152.4x121.9cm|
|Striding Figure II (Ghost) 2012 Bronze and steel 472.4x200.7x304.8cm|
|Lying Figure (Mother Father) Bronze 2011 Ile de Vassiviere Centre International D'art Du Paysage|
|Hauser & Wirth exhibition I'll be your Sister exhibition of Houseago's works in Savile Row, London 2012|
|Untitled (Sprawling Octapus Man) 2009 Bronze 256x213x152cm|
|Standing Figure (Rome I) 2013 Plaster, hemp and iron 358.1x170.2x236.2cm. Photograph by Giorgio Benni. Copyright Thomas Houseago|
|Standing Figure (Roman Figure I) 2013 Plaster, hemp and iron 358.1x160x132.1cm. Photograph Giorgio Benni. Copyright Thomas Houseago|
|Baby is Houseago's three-metre tall sculpture that was exhibited at the Whiteny Biennial in 2010. Plaster, hemp, iron, charcoal and board|