A month or so ago, I had been clearing out my Dictaphone and come across a recording of an anecdote of Thomas Houseago’s; I’d taped it while at Lismore castle, working out there with Hauser and Wirth, and the general gist of it was about a corpse found just outside his studio. Either the head was missing the body, or the body was missing the head. I can’t quite recall, but either way, Houseago makes the incident vital – a tragicomic allegory for some facet of the artist; that weird proximity to danger required of the truly weird. It’s a funny story, too. It shouldn’t be, but death is like that: death is Dada, or Picasso. “At birth,” Hans Arp said, “death is put in.”
Thomas Houseago, Sitting Woman, 2012, Tuf-Cal, hemp, iron rebar, 241.3 x 248.9 x 205.7 cm / 95 x 98 x 81 in; © Thomas Houseago/ Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth/ Photo: Fredrik Nilsen.
Fittingly, in a recent interview with the Financial Times, Houseago referenced the act of decapitation again, less literally. “Marlene goes deep into the cave and comes out with the severed heads,” he said of Marlene Dumas, admiring of her willingness to charge into the face of evil – into the deepest recesses of the weirdo-complex artist brain. Like the man himself, the work is characterized by its intensity – by the rugged “essentialness,” if you like, of its generally huge gestalt – and by that featherlight touch of the absurd and the anachronistic. One of his sculptures, which looks as though it has stood in situ a thousand years, is roughly inspired by the kittenish form of Barbadian pop star Rihanna, taken from the cover of a recent issue of Esquire. Even the show title “Special Brew” is quietly and delightfully funny. It has the sound of something witchy, esoteric, mystic-potent – actually, it refers to that super-strength lager drunk by feral kids and street-scruffed alcoholics: the rocket-fuel of the artist’s adolescence.
Scale is the easiest thing to emphasise – the works are, at minimum, three metres tall – but they’re also strikingly lovely, in the brutish manner of real biology. At the Lismore brunch in May, Houseago had confided that he was afraid that Iwan Wirth would hate the work (“I’ve made a lot of penises,” he’d said, mock-darkly. “And that’s about it.”). Various disembodied parts of collossal bodies are shown in motion; fingers claw through the gallery floor, and legs take Boccioni strides. I was reminded of those ancient anatomical waxes, where the body appears in all its layers, peeled and delicate: elemental. The skeleton flashes out of the skin, and the giant is humbled, and brought to his knees.
Thomas Houseago, Column I (Light House) (detail), 2012, Tuf-Cal, hemp, iron rebar, 325.1 x 142.2 x 132.1 cm / 128 x 56 x 52 in; © Thomas Houseago/ Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth / Photo: Fredrik Nilsen
“Half shaman, half showman,” as the late Sebastian Horsely called himself: this is Houseago’s makeup, too – his hyper-potent Special Brew. The big, bombastic majesty and the whispering skeletal structure beneath. It’s Rihanna remade as a monolith, or Picasso crossbred with the Iron Giant. Pop and life and death and Dada come together for Houseago, and his decisions, across both shows, feel gut-driven, hyper-instinctive. Some men study to build their monoliths – like death, it was put in Houseago at birth.
(Image on top: Thomas Houseago, Portrait Column I, 2012 , Tuf-Cal, hemp, iron rebar , 302.3 x 163.8 x 121.9 cm / 119 x 64 1/2 x 48 in; © Thomas Houseago/ Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth / Photo: Fredrik Nilsen)