The first time they really spoke to each other was in December 2006 at a bar at the Houston Airport. Thomas Houseago, his wife, the painter Amy Bessone, and Aaron Curry were all exhibiting at the same gallery in Los Angeles. Together they were flying to Miami where they were due to take part in a show at the Rubell Family Collection.
Even then Houseago was probably the loudest among them: with his red beard and hair to match, Houseago, who grew up in the working-class city of Leeds in England, was a man whose voice was always somehow verging on hoarse and who made big, clunky sculptures that no one seemed to care for much—no one, that is, except for Curry, the reserved Texan. He and Houseago were on a similar path. “I was working even more abstractly at the time and thought Thomas was incredibly courageous. Just totally wacky, unlike anything else out there. Really exciting. These days there are a few sculptors experimenting with figuration again, but at the time it was completely out of the question.”
A few drinks and discussions later, Houseago felt like someone who, after years of solitary confinement, finally receives a visitor in his cell. “I always thought I was heading for total failure. I still remember how people spat at me at an opening in Brussels in 2003. That’s how much they hated my work. Then I met Aaron — and suddenly everything seemed to make sense after all. I wasn’t alone in the universe anymore.”
It’s October 2009, almost four years after that first meeting, and Houseago and Curry are sitting side by side on a couch in a back room of the VeneKlasen Werner gallery in Berlin and, despite being clearly jet-lagged, they seem more than content. They’re making preparations for their double-exhibition, “TwoFaceTwo”—a sequel to their first collaboration, “TwoFace”, on display since the end of last May at the Marfa Ballroom in Texas (until December 13th).
Curry now has a studio in the same building in Los Angeles as Houseago. Both of them have had some early successes, a few solo exhibitions at decent galleries, and their work has been purchased by prominent collectors. Curry is under contract to Daniel Buchholz among others, and Houseago has been to Berlin twice already this fall: Before his exhibition at VeneKlasen Werner, he had already been given a major show by Contemporary Fine Arts (CFA). They are no longer alone in the universe. But one thing is clear to anyone who sees their artworks: This is an art encounter of the third kind. Cubism? Surrealism? Native Art? Rodin, Walt Disney, or maybe just science fiction? With Houseago and Curry, even the savviest art historians lose their sense of orientation.
Even the way the two sculptors position their figures in the room is unusual in its nonchalant simplicity. Houseago’s archaic giants and bizarre archways, Curry’s complex bronze statues and surreal wood sculptures are totally self-sufficient—they need no laborious context, no conceptual framework. You don’t approach them from the safety of analytical distance, but rather encounter them as you would alien life forms.
The power with which these sculptures own the spaces they inhabit is all the more impressive when one considers the fact that they’re actually conceived on a flat surface. Both artists work exclusively in two dimensions when developing their ideas. Thomas Houseago draws the outlines on plasterboard, then cuts them out and assembles them into mighty constructions that nevertheless always look as though they might topple over at any moment. “You’re supposed to see the joints, and the welded steel supports as well.”
And Curry explains how he was a painter before moving into three dimensions. His sculptures are composed of flat panels, often simply interlocking like in Ray and Charles Eames’ famous “House of Cards”: sometimes they’re made of heavy bronze, sometimes wood or else synthetic materials in bold, shimmering colors. His abstract fantasy figures obstinately behave as though no time had passed since the figure itself was shattered into a thousand pieces by Picasso and Braque. “Cubism is all about the illusion of space, but at the same time it always returns to the flat surface,” says Curry—this same tension is what makes his own works so exciting.
At the same time, his figures fit right in with contemporary comics and graffiti culture. The wooden panels in Curry’s works are printed with computer generated drawings, in which single eyeballs or a hyper-realistic ear may spontaneously crop up. Recently he has also started covering them with grids of the sort used in software applications to create the impression of perspective: They make the figures appear to flicker and draw the confused observer’s gaze back to the flat surface. These illustrations are like continuations of Curry’s work on paper, which are also reproduced in a virtual, digital space and then meticulously printed. Here the figures congeal into grotesque grimaces, horned monsters, or faces that look like a cross between a tribal mask and something from a Hollywood zombie movie.
Curry and Houseago (both born in 1972) have each been influenced by the iconic images from popular culture. “We’re from the periphery,” says Houseago. In San Antonio, Texas just as in Leeds, in Northern England, there were plenty of cartoons and television, but few museums. Their first experience of surrealism was on album covers and their introduction to cubist aesthetics came in the shape of Darth Vader’s helmet; long before they ever came face-to-face with a painting by Tanguy or Picasso.
“Our generation sees modernist art through the lens of pop culture, not the other way around,” says Houseago. Both can be the source of eye-opening experiences: “When I was a kid my dad played me ‘I Am the Walrus’ by the Beatles and it opened up a whole new world. My first encounter with the avant-garde—without which I never could have become an artist. When I found out later that there was this bloke called Picasso, it was just as important as knowing that there was this bloke called John Lennon.”
Curry and Houseago both have the same answer to the notorious Beatles-or-Stones question. And they can talk with the same intensity about the first chord in “Help!” as they can about the way Michelangelo left traces of his re-workings in the “Pietà”. But their use of pop culture as a foil to high art doesn’t do much to set them apart from many other artists of their generation. Aaron Curry and Thomas Houseago stand out for an entirely different reason: they are trying to establish a completely radical new foundation for art as something at odds with society, as something that goes all the way back to the most basic questions.
Life doesn’t care about art history’s filing-cabinet. It has much more to offer. When Houseago came to Berlin for the first time this fall for his outstanding solo exhibition at CFA, he told me about his truly tumultuous summer: someone was shot dead outside his studio—a casualty of the ongoing gang war. He was the one who found the body. Then he and his family had to flee the massive wildfires around Los Angeles. Their house had to be evacuated. And shortly thereafter his second child was born.
“What’s it about? It’s about life, death, it’s about the meaning you’ve got to find in that,” says Houseago in his raspy Yorkshire voice. This is exactly what one senses in his figures: one of them crouched on its knees like a monstrous baby, another supporting itself with its arms like an ape. Yet another stands up straight: its body is nothing but a flat, crudely cut-out board on columnar feet, its head perched on top like a helmet. These sculptures are at once fragile and immensely powerful, and you can read them in many different ways: as astronauts and as ancient Egyptians, strange spirits, or the first humans, formed out of clay by a godly hand.
When Thomas Houseago follows the gaze of one of his giant creations through the large front windows of the CFA gallery, and straight towards the Museumsinsel and the Pergamon Museum, his face lights up, because somewhere in there, among those ancient artifacts, you can see that humanity has been wrestling with the same issues for over 2000 years: with its effigies and its capacity for giving expression to the essence of its existence.
ouseago’s exhibition at CFA was called “There is a crack in everything – That’s how the light gets in.” The crack is evident in his works’ visible joints and welds, in their unfinishedness, in the sketches and remnants of earlier versions that are still part of them. They manage simultaneously to reflect on their own coming into being, openly show the artists’ work process, and not to take themselves and this whole business too seriously.
Later, sitting on the couch next to Curry, Houseago describes their generation as one that began when everything was already over. Minimalism, conceptual art, whatever. There are no dogmas anymore. Anything is possible. But the system has certain conventions—conventions that Houseago and Curry want to do away with, each in his own way. “In the US, art school is very academic. You get the feeling you’ve got to follow a particular model. They talk about art in a very specific way,” Curry explains. “I studied under Mike Kelley. He’s great, but I had to find my own path. I want to do things that aren’t easily translatable into words; things that are more than just what it says in the catalog.” And Houseago adds: “It’s easy to make a career out of doing a certain type of conceptual art these days. You come across as intellectual, rational, sober. But that’s not what I wanted. I think we’ve spent enough time thinking about the White Cube, about the Death of the Author and all that.”
Thomas Houseago and Aaron Curry have done a fair bit of thinking themselves. They’ve come to the conclusion that art needs to be approached as a necessity. They’re against the cynicism and the ostentatiously jaded attitudes. “Life’s too short for decadence and boredom. It’s like saying ‘I know I’m in a band, but actually I don’t really like rock ‘n’ roll. I don’t get those people,” says Houseago.
Now that they’re receiving recognition for their work, they’re also starting to get invitations to more openings and events. This is another reason Houseago and Curry value their friendship: it gives them something to hold onto in this business. “I thought everything would be fantastic once I finally had a bit of money,” Houseago says. “That’s not quite how it is. Money does give me the freedom to work the way I want, but first I’ve got to figure out again who I’m supposed to be in all this.”
The art business, Curry confirms, likes to market individuals; it isolates the key players and plays them off against each other. “But that’s the way it works: when I visit Thomas in his studio and see that he’s done something really great, then I’m that much more motivated when it comes to my own work.”—“Without Aaron I never could have done it. No artist is an island,” says Houseago.
All the while, in the next room, a seated plaster goblin and an alien on paper have been staring at each other. Perhaps they’re exchanging thoughts on Caravaggio. Or on the Beatles’ White Album. “Art isn’t the problem — it’s the solution.” Another one of those statements by Houseago. He’s convinced that art can completely change your life from the ground up. After all, it happened to him. Aaron Curry smiles and nods while he pours the white wine. After all, in Los Angeles, it’s well into happy hour.
Aaron Curry and Thomas Houseago: “TwoFaceTwo”, VeneKlasen Werner, Berlin, until December 19.