Thomas Houseago is said to be a major figure in international sculpture, and though his work is certainly unusual, I was somewhat disappointed by this exhibition, Almost Human. The first couple of rooms were exciting because the works were so unique: deformed, misshapen sculptural creatures, desperately trying to move through the world in uncomfortable bodies. The figures were like a cross between Georg Baselitz’s enormous wooden sculptures, crying out to be noticed, Constantin Brancusi’s sensuous human corps without faces, and survivors of Dante’s inferno.
In the first room, I was enthusiastic about the discourses Houseago engages with: questions of the fragility of the human body, abjection, the body as a shell that, contrary to how we behave towards it, offers no more than flimsy, if any, protection. Houseago’s bodies stand awkwardly in their own skin, painfully aware of their disfigurement, thus inciting our compassion. I also enjoyed seeing the unique way that he uses plaster and other materials. Plaster enables Houseago to mold and manipulate unfinished figures, figures that the museum text called sculptural sketches. Certainly, the notion of the sculpture as a living, breathing, always unfinished process, or an abandoned object was innovative. Also, Houseago’s plaster, hastily covering hemp with exposed frayed edges, filled with graphite scratches and scribbles contributed to the unique notion of sculpture as drawing. In a later room, a series of black paintings placed opposite masks scrawled on white canvases, extended the suggestion of sculpture as a scribble, as an idea in gestation.
Other works in the exhibition that I found conceptually, if not aesthetically, interesting were Houseago’s masks. Some were sculpted, others carved into two dimensional painted surfaces, still others scribbled onto canvases. The masks in wood, plaster and steel were said to refer to African cultures, particularly because they made no reference to or discourse on the face behind the mask. Rather, they engaged sculpture as a performance, or perhaps even an expression of the unconscious, or a symbol of life stages. Visitors will also see Picasso’s masks and figures in the shapes and expressions of these Houseago masks.
However, the later rooms of the exhibition were less convincing. There were enormous sculptures like creatures from science fiction movies, their faces on extended necks towering over us mere mortals. These creatures were frightening, as were the totem-like figures hacked out of large slabs of wood. There were also pieces that reminded me of the strange spaceships from science fiction movies, looking like wombs with vaginal openings. All around them are weird figures whose forms continue on from those in the earlier rooms thanks to their sense of being unfinished, or abandoned midway through. These later works were distinct though because the bodies were supported with iron rods, suggesting their constructedness, making them verge into architectural structures. They were very strange. As the exhibition moved on, the figures seemed to suggest increasing violence and aggression. Whether it was in their form being hacked out of a piece of wood or a giant head with scaffolding for a body, the works in the later rooms were very unsettling, less compassionate, and for me, less compelling.