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Sculptor Thomas Houseago's shape-shifting world

The L.A.-based artist is generating buzz in the art community with hulking pieces, like the Whitney Biennial's 'Baby,' that are placing a fresh dynamism on monumental sculpture.

January 02, 2011|By Jori Finkel, Los Angeles Times
  • Artist Thomas Houseago in his Los Angeles studio.
Artist Thomas Houseago in his Los Angeles studio. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles…)

It's hard not to think about Picasso when visiting Thomas Houseago's studio near the Los Angeles River. The main space is filled with monstrous figures and heads that look like they could have walked, or tumbled, out of the groundbreaking, proto-Cubist painting "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon."

A 38-year-old, British-born, L.A.-based artist, Houseago has been getting the comparison a lot lately from writers and collectors alike.

"It's probably because Picasso was the last really credible figurative artist of the 20th century, so any attempt to bring the physical or sensual back into sculpture goes back to him. But I think there are as many references to Rodin as Picasso in my sculpture," the artist says, pointing toward some thick, trunk-like legs that look as firmly rooted as Rodin's "The Burghers of Calais."

What the talkative, verging on manic, California transplant doesn't say: Picasso is also art-world shorthand for big or bold ambition. And Houseago's large, hulking but oddly vulnerable sculptures, drawing strength and frailty from the human form, seem to fit the bill.

"Having seen the work develop over the last decade, I think Thomas' work has never been better than it is today," says MOCA chief curator Paul Schimmel, who helped the museum acquire his work this year. "And it's never been more ambitious than it is today."

Schimmel sees echoes of Michelangelo — "the bulk and awkwardness" of David — in the monumental sculpture that Houseago is currently making for French collector Francois Pinault's Palazzo Grassi on the Grand Canal in Venice. It's a standing bronze figure, more than 30 feet tall, to be installed before the Venice Biennale next summer. The MOCA curator anticipates that this sculpture, like his others, will have a dynamic, "almost performative quality."

"When I saw the Palazzo Grassi, I had a vision of a large striding figure walking out into the sky," says the artist, a burly figure who looks like he could work construction, and once did. "It will stand on a platform, on a plinth that's in the water, so it will rise out of the water like Poseidon."

By far his largest piece, it's also in some ways his most challenging. Although he generally starts all of his sculptures with a sketch, he made at least five heads before finding the one that works for this piece. He considers the massive heads stand-alone artworks and has placed examples cast in different materials in his current show at the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford, England, and a gallery show that opens Jan. 22 at L&M Arts in Venice, Calif.

The L&M show will have a black bronze head worthy of Darth Vader — with cavernous eye sockets and a grill-like mouth. The show also features more abstract sculptural panels done in aluminum that his L&M dealer, Sarah Watson, calls "more architectural than any of his other work." As for his career trajectory, she says, "I've worked with young artists a long time, and I haven't seen anything like this."

But Houseago is clearly uncomfortable with the role of hot young artist. "I'm being viewed as a sudden success," he says. "But I'm 38 — I left art school 14 years ago, and I'm from the [bowels] of the world, the north of England. My journey has been long and complicated."

A rough start

Houseago was born in Leeds, England, which he compares to Gary, Ind. He was raised by his mother; his father was institutionalized for schizophrenia when he was 6. He claims not to remember much of his schooling because he was "drunk like everyone else there starting at the age of 12." But he always liked to draw and picked up skills from a middle-school program in CDT: Craft, Design and Technology.

"It was about teaching you how to do things — welding, car building, some kind of craft," he says. "I've always known how to arc-weld, and I know how to mix concrete. You weren't really a man unless you knew how to do these things."

In 1989 he got a government grant to attend a local art school for a year. "I was doing performances, shamanistic things inspired by Joseph Beuys." For one early work he made sculptures out of trash and set them on fire. He went on to attend Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design in London and De Ateliers in Amsterdam, where he met artist Matthew Monahan and his future wife, painter Amy Bessone.

After school, the couple moved to Brussels, where he struggled with what it means to be a figurative sculptor today. He also struggled financially, taking a range of odd jobs: retail, construction and sculpture commissions ("giant rabbits, weird stuff") for children's parks.

After being hit with an unexpected tax on one of his projects, he ended up filing for bankruptcy. Los Angeles, where Monahan now lived, was looking good. "Now everyone thinks I was being canny and strategic by moving to L.A., but in fact it was an act of desperation." He says he arrived in town at the end of 2003 with $300 to his name.

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