Thomas Houseago’s Hulking Totemic Sculptures

Thomas Houseago readily admits to the echoes of early Cubist-style Africanism in his sculptural work for floor, wall, and lawn. Looking at African art through Western-tinted glasses, he shares the Cubist’s appreciation for the psychological symbolism of masks and imposing nudes. The visceral impact of bulbous plaster, choppy wood, and hefty metal readily serves his sophisticated update of a Primitivist aesthetic. But he’s a modern LA artist, after all, who is very aware of all this embedded historical content, and his work is full of winks and nods to its pop culture filter. His new show at L&M Arts in Los Angeles, All Together Now, includes a juggernaut of roughly hewn, totemic figures and abstract landscapes for the contemporary tribalist.

The sublime combination of large scale and formal ambiguity places fear and desire face to face, channeling the Western penchant for sexualizing the exotic, as well as mythologizing the artistic practice. Houseago’s operating very much within the current trend of showmanship and industrial aesthetics, mainly characterized by juxtaposing very different kinds of materials as distinct component elements. As the press release asserts, this work literally incorporates, “every material in his repertoire,” and not necessarily in their traditional roles. For example, he uses metal for wall pieces depicting faces and landscapes, plaster for monumental abstractions, and treats wood with a rough, mechanical hand.

Each work is fairly massive and bears evidence of its having been wrought by someone, with a raw and deliberate confidence that seems either ruined or interrupted. The cluster of styles Houseago employs are linked together by a general theatricality and a subtle historical wit, as well as a sense that some of these pieces might have at one time fulfilled actual ceremonial functions. Aside from the clear physiognomy of the “mask” pieces, works like the supple, splintered Rattlesnake, and the very un-ovoid shape of Egg are keys to translating the distorted anthropomorphism in the series, especially with regard to the commingled metaphoric elements of anatomy and landscape.

Thomas Houseago: All Together Now is on view at L&M Arts in Los Angeles through March 5.

Click through for a gallery of images from the exhibition.

Thomas Houseago on the exterior and grounds of L&M Arts. Photo by Fredrik Nilsen.