New Primitive: In the Studio with Thomas Houseago
Art in America
Adam O'Reilly
25 January 2011

Thomas Houseago remembers a childhood visit to the Cerne Abbas Giant, the mysterious hillside carving of a naked man in the English countryside. Likewise, his goliath works look to primitive forms and origin myths and emphasizes their crudeness. The monstrous figures, rendered in plaster and bronze, riff on Classicism and the Modernist obsession with primitive forms. The endlessly referential forms have clearly struck a chord, seeing inclusion in the most recent Whitney Biennial and solo gallery shows with Michael Werner and L&M.

Houseago, 38, moved to Los Angeles seven years ago. A new body of indoor and outdoor works sees him striving to create public work amidst the city's famously private architecture. We caught up with the artist via telephone as he prepared for a show of new work at L&M in Los Angeles, which opened Saturday.

ADAM O'REILLY: In the past you've shown immense figures that seem otherworldly. In the context of Los Angeles, where you're both making and showing the work, how do you achieve that effect?

THOMAS HOUSEAGO: I am at a moment where there are new experiments and ideas in my studio, which have been relatively hidden from the general public. I want the show to mimic the type of exploration that goes on there. It's a wide range of pieces, really looking at the idea of bridging two points between working as a figurative artist but also having fluid abstraction going on in the process. I wanted to bring that out.

O'REILLY: What are you working against when your goal is to create immersive, interactive effects with monumental sculpture?

HOUSEAGO: Well, I am showing for the first time an installation of panels, which create an environment for the sculptures. I live in the hills outside of L.A. in Topanga, a rural, pretty wild landscape. I am in the city by day and country in the evenings and mornings. There is a visual portal that happens with that, and I am trying to represent it in the panels. And outside the gallery there will be huge sculptures, creating this theme of indoor and outdoor, figurative and abstract, monument and fragment, within the show.

O'REILLY: Many of the sculptures that you make evidence the process in which they were made. Is it a natural development to display your thought process?

HOUSEAGO: I am strongly of the opinion that one of the powerful elements of sculpture is that it shows the presence of a body. Even if you aren't making a figure, an element of performance occurs and you see the results of that. It's this Joseph Beuys idea that thinking can be form, giving the material a wider implication. It's something I feel more urgently as things become more digital and the human hand is removed. I want you to be able to walk in and feel the process. It's really quite vulnerable.

O'REILLY: Do you trace that importance of the hand to growing up in a mining town like Leeds?

HOUSEAGO: You are marked by experiences, and in the 70s when I grew up, Leeds was transforming from this very traditional industrial town to Margaret Thatcher bourgeois England. I watched the transition happen. A culture of physicality was lost. Also, as an artist in the 90s, the idea of art being progressive was linked to thought and critique, moving away from art being an activity made by the body. It was a very reductive and cerebral time and I reacted to that, I felt there was this cul-de-sac being created.

O'REILLY: Do you anticipate a chain of physical reactions after visitors encounter your sculpture?

HOUSEAGO: I'd like them to have a window into the studio and feel an ambition about what sculpture can be, feel the energy, both positively and negatively. It's not a show that will breed indifference. It will simultaneously be accessible and uncompromising saying, "These are the things I am trying to do without irony or anything hidden."