At 12 feet high and something like 50 linear feet, Thomas Houseago’s Open Wall (Beautiful Wall) (2017), made of industrial plaster, hemp, and iron rebar, is a quirky, counterintuitive monument. Its imposing scale and wavering division of Gagosian’s blessedly lofty gallery space feels light, engaging and curious rather than forbidding or cautionary. Its four interlocking panels may be arranged in variable freestanding configurations—in this case, a Z-shape evoking a dressing room screen. While not translucent, its frontage is pierced and punctuated so that whatever is on the other side (in this case, a series of related self- contained cubic sculptures in the same material) is perfectly visible through its ornamental rifts, playing peekaboo with any viewer in motion, functioning to reveal rather than conceal. It’s tempting to call it white, but in truth it’s more of a paprika-speckled ivory. Its surface is not so much textured as tiered, with rounded contours and abstract layered relief. All the action is around back, where braces support it just like the verso of a movie set façade, and that side is deeply mottled with tactile hemp fibers and rust-tinged rebar poking through, revealing the labor-intensive expressivity of its own fabrication, and undermining the very premise of front and back in the process.
The ridge to which the exhibition’s title refers is a real place from the artist’s British childhood, a sort of partly-walled hilltop with obstructed views and an eerie, still Surrealism. But rather than a literal representation of place, what the artist is replicating is the in-between feeling of liminal hybridity which he experienced there. His related sculptures employ the same materials as the wall, with the exteriors smooth and carved and the visible interiors messy and warm. Vaguely suggesting North African vernacular buildings, the artist refers to these protean structures as abstractions, palaces, museums and studios. This richness of detail hidden in the monochrome surfaces continues in a suite of a dozen enormous Black Paintings (2016), spanning 108-by-72 inches each. Somehow evoking both Mark Grotjahn and Ad Reinhardt, Houseago’s goopy uber-impasto and hyper-gestural dug-out finger- painting drawing carves shallow trenches into the thickly pigmented surfaces. Like the “white” sculptures, the image content (skeletal faces) is generated more by the play of shadow and raking light across the scar tissue and, yes, ridges of the oil paint. Detail and a subtly broader range of colors are revealed only slowly, activated by the viewers’ eyes adjusting and their own movement in the space, remaining hidden, until the elements conspire just so, achieving the desired union of place, object, presence and memory.
—SHANA NYS DAMBROT