For his first solo show at Asya Geisberg Gallery in 2012, Guðmundur Thoroddsen presented ink drawings and wooden busts of blank-eyed bearded patriarchs—gods, men, and their progeny—as the exhibition title suggested: “Father’s Fathers.” Thoroddsen, who is Icelandic, was remixing imagery from various sources: Norse mythology, humankind’s evolutionary path, and the artist’s personal history, while the long geometric beards of the figures, depicted both in the drawings and the busts, alluded to Sumerian statues of kings. These images were accompanied by what appeared to be a collection of ancient pottery and tools (but were actually emulsified feces), arranged horizontally on a broad platform as if they were in one of the Metropolitan Museum’s wings for ancient cultures. Some of the ink drawings reflected this feeling of an archaeological investigation into a distant past; their descriptive quality reminded me of illustrations of ancient artifacts. All of this was done with a kind of tongue-in-cheek humor—the work was funny, gods pissing on each other—but its funniness clashed with the foreboding gloom of those ghostly patriarchs.
Perhaps descendants of that patrilineal race, the men in Thoroddsen’s current show, “Hobby and Work,” sport similar beards, but they seem to come from a more recent time period; maybe they are even contemporary but exist somewhere isolated. In the drawings, the men—sometimes wearing sports apparel and hunting gear, but mostly un-self-consciously nude—play basketball, amble about, defecate, pass gas, shoot guns, stalk prey, or brew beer. This paradise is an ambiguous wilderness or a basketball court that feels very claustrophobic. Thoroddsen’s guys fill the page, along with floating, smiling phalluses and cloudy farts, as though there were nothing beyond the rectangle of the picture. The world is only them, their space, and their shit.
Guðmundur Thoroddsen, Imaginary Father II, 2012, from the Rockabilly Ancestors Series Wood, 17" x 9" x 5"; Courtesy of the artist and Asya Geisberg Gallery.
And what shit it is. Glazed earthenware pieces recall the shape of the shit that some of the men are taking in the drawings. Gnarly and oddly sensuous, they are trophies for achievements like Best October of 2013 I and II (2013). There is a Trophy for Artistic Thought (2013) and even a Trophy of Trophies (2013). They are precious, charming shit-trophies and they have a wink to them that matches the smiles of the phallus-nosed busts. While the first generation of busts represented imposing patriarchs, these are of rockabilly dads and hunting gnomes.
In the “Father’s Fathers” drawings, Thoroddsen let the dark-colored inks seep into each other, creating a graphic effect that made the figures look shadowy, and he burned some of the crudely chiseled busts so that they were a charred brown-black, communicating a terribly violent ending. While he played archaeologist in that show, in the current one he adapts a draftsmanship that feels like he’s simulating an untrained—what the press release calls “primitive”—aesthetic; there’s a cartoonish and purposely clumsy quality to his drawings and sculptures. I think Thoroddsen is actually very skilled with the techniques and materials he uses. And he uses them performatively, like an actor employing a dresser full of costumes to play a variety of characters.
Another significant aspect of Thoroddsen’s work is the simulation of a museum space. Maybe it doesn’t take much work to transform a Chelsea gallery into a place that resembles a room in a museum, but Thoroddsen’s installation effectively determines the context in which to experience the objects he has made. Painting the plinths on which the sculptures rest a blue gray and the walls a mauve-pink, and even presenting the drawings in white frames instead of pinning them directly onto the walls, is a very deliberate choice. These details help create an atmosphere of institutional formality—that of a museum. And in doing so, Thoroddsen’s work raises questions about history and power.
Guðmundur Thoroddsen, Trophy of Beards II, 2013, Glazed earthenware, 4.5” x 4” x 2.5”; Courtesy of the artist and Asya Geisberg Gallery.
Museums are reliquaries of the past. They influence the present and future by determining whose work is important and worthy enough of permanence and visibility in the scale of a museum exhibition. Most often, they maintain the status quo. In Thoroddsen’s work, the museum is a closed system built by patriarchy. Only the stories of masculine men get told and retold in a series of one-upmanship and constant reference to predecessors in this insular world. It’s a parody that isn’t so far from the reality: white, heteronormative stories and images get to be shown, while the stories and images of people of color, queer folks, and women are marginalized. Thoroddsen’s criticism of patriarchy takes the form of serious clowning around that only thinly scratches the surface. I don’t know if he’s interested in truly challenging convention though. That would be a different kind of art. But we can find value in the work he makes now, with its prickly ambivalence, because of the questions it asks. And questions can be disruptive to convention.
(Image on top: Guðmundur Thoroddsen, Basketball Practice II, 2013 , Watercolor, graphite, ink, and collage on paper , 42" x 29"; Courtesy of the artist and Asya Geisberg Gallery.)