Thomas Houseago: As I Went Out This Morning is the first large-scale presentation of the work of artist Thomas Houseago (b. 1972) in the United States. Born and raised in Leeds, England, Houseago also lived in the Netherlands and Belgium before moving to Los Angeles in 2003, becoming a United States citizen in 2012. Houseago has taken a particular interest in outdoor sculpture, and as such Storm King is an ideal venue for an exhibition of his work. This exhibition includes indoor and outdoor sculpture in several media, including bronze, aluminum, wood, Tuf-Cal plaster, and charcoal, as well as drawings, displayed in Storm King's Museum Building and on the grounds of Museum Hill. Houseago began to create outdoor sculpture in 2007, and this exhibition includes the earliest example of his large-scale work in bronze, Untitled Striding Figure, 1, and outdoor and indoor works completed as recently as 2013, on view in this exhibition for the first time.
Houseago has created a body of primarily sculptural work that simultaneously exudes a sense of physical strength and emotional vulnerability. His works are raw, energetic and surprising, revealing unlikely shifts in depth and representational strategies when seen from different viewing angles. While his works are not strictly realistic, Houseago takes cues from the world around him. As he has said, “In my approach to making sculpture, I try to be honest to the experience of looking and recording. You could argue that sculpture is a dramatization of the space between your eye and the world, between what you see and feel, and memory.” Houseago's work also calls upon a wide range of influences—from Hellenistic statuary and early Modernist sculpture, to popular music and culture. This exhibition's title, for instance, derives from a Bob Dylan song, and Houseago has said that music, even before visual art, had a profound influence on his artistic development.
As a sculptor who is deeply engaged in the process of making art, the artist's hand is often detectable in Houseago's works, as are moments of preparatory drawing, traces of hemp-laden plaster, and wood scraps that initially served only structural purposes. Allusions to a studio-based practice are frequent in this exhibition: in the Museum Building, Houseago has created a site-specific installation with the work Dome/museum/coin room. In addition, along with the grouping of monumental bronze and aluminum sculptures on display outdoors are included two plaster chairs designed by Houseago, which visitors are welcome to sit upon, thus bringing themselves within the playful, multifaceted reality of the artist's studio.
This exhibition was organized by David R. Collens, Director and Curator, and Nora Lawrence, Associate Curator, Storm King Art Center. Thomas Houseago: As I Went Out One Morning is made possible by generous lead support from Hauser & Wirth, the Hazen Polsky Foundation, and the Ohnell Charitable Lead Trust. Additional support is provided by Mr. and Mrs. Frederick Nicholas. Education-related programming is made possible by the Sidney E. Frank Foundation.
Nora Lawrence: Where was your first studio in Los Angeles?
Thomas Houseago: Lincoln Heights. That's northeast LA. It's an interesting neighborhood. Now it's kind of gentrifying. Most of the first studios I had were in pretty roughed up neighborhoods. But you get used to that. In Europe, it was the same. But that was a great studio.
I met some of the guys that were working on that building and I was working on that building too, as a form of paying rent. They were a full on labor crew, hardcore. Some of the guys were interested in what I was doing because I had a room in this weird building and I was working during the evenings, nights and weekends. It's strange some people get art and some people just don't. I've got friends who just don't get it and some do. It really doesn't matter the background. You can see if it just resonates with [them] or not. So that's how I met some of the first people who started working with me. I was working with them. We stayed in communication and when we moved studios they were working in that building because the owner, that was his crew. Some of the guys would watch me and were interested, so I would bring them in on weekends. Then you notice some people have propensity and a kind of skill. So the crew was an unusual group.
The main guy, Andy Roth, is the brother of one of my foundrers. It's a small foundry in LA, very small. And I was working with his brother when I was working on my very first bronzes, like the piece for the Rubells. I didn't have any assistance really at the time and that guy who owned the foundry said, “Well, you need to think about getting some help.” At that time I was having all sorts of accidents, things were falling. It was really bad. I didn't have any infrastructure to be a sculptor. He noticed that it was a very dangerous kind of environment in there. And I was doing similar scaled work to what I do now. That's a question I get a lot, has it gotten bigger now? Not really. I was always had this Fitzcarraldo-like desire to build these things that couldn't quite be done, I couldn't quite handle. Now I'm more conscious of it but looking back, this idea of the impossible, the possible idea of being an artist and dramatizing that.
NL: Has the idea of what's possible and impossible changed for you?
TH: There's just different ideas of impossible. Back then, it helped that it was so logical. I want to do this big piece . . . Now, it's much more existential, the discussion you have with yourself. You say, “Well, if I had this then I could do this.” But when you have all the things, it's really another debate. But it really hasn't changed much at all. The main shift for me is having support, mentally and physically-I mean, cleaning my studio is a task in and of itself. Or not feeling so lonely, things like that. Or the ability to handle the world more now. I used to be very reclusive, and I sort of fetishized failure. I liked being failed and I liked being outside and I liked being a weirdo. I've always kind of been drawn towards those positions. Subconsciously sometimes, and consciously sometimes. It was always me moving from one precarious situation to a more precarious situation. Whenever things start to steady up, I make it more precarious or make myself more far out.
I already felt like that where I grew up in Leeds. To be an artist there was to call yourself an outsider, straightaway. I've always searched that out and looked for that. Now I have to deal with the world. But I can set up a way of dealing with it now that's more sophisticated and more interesting. That allows me to be a weirdo and still interface with the world. Or perceive myself as a weirdo.
NL: What I think is really interesting is your obvious passion for the place when you've come to visit Storm King and how you feel like that fits in with your work.
TH: In Yorkshire, you have Henry Moore and you have Henry Moore Sculpture Park which was a famous garden by [Lancelot] “Capability” Brown, who's one of the first really major landscape architects, who's a British guy. Great name, by the way, “Capability” Brown. Growing up, we would go on school things out to this landscape where you had the sculptures and this beautiful, rolling, sort of Yorkshire landscape. I always thought I wasn't enjoying it. I always thought I didn't like it or I was always trying to get drunk on these things. But probably it went into me. I know now when you read Henry Moore, he talks about the Yorkshire moors and the stones and the wildness of that landscape.
So that must be a seed that was planted in me somehow. I was taught by Jan Dibbets, the famous conceptual photographer, and he always said that guys from the north of England had this desire to change the landscape. He was saying there was some kind of romantic relationship between the landscape and building things. So that's in me, definitely. When I started discovering artists like David Smith and the way that he worked really with an environment, and with an outdoor environment. And that was of course a kind of New England, right? It was Bolton's Landing.
NL: In New York.
TH: Yeah, right. That was really captivating to me at a certain moment. This idea of an artist taking the environment—it's quite a radical decision to move out of the museum, the reliance on the museum, move out of the reliance on the gallery system, move out of the reliance even on the critical establishment, and say, “I'm my own . . . this is my own universe.” The roots of that are in [Constantin] Brancusi. And you can go way, way, way back, of course. But when I saw David Smith and you could feel the pleasure he had and the tremendous freedom he felt. That appeared such an incredibly radical thing to me. And it seemed like something you could only do in America.
Then you have Serra, Richard Serra. And then [Alexander] Calder. Calder also straddled this thing between the United States and Europe. In a way, David Smith did too. David Smith, like Jackson Pollock, took European Modernism and did something weird with it that I still don't think we fully know. No one's really written about that properly. There's an American spirit to it, no doubt about it. And there's Pop in it, which I think is in the American psyche, this idea of popular culture. Then there's this nature thing that both David Smith and Jackson Pollock have, how you see a heroic, grand nature in their work.
Anyway, these are ideas that mill around me. So I first heard of Storm King as a thing because I had slowly-and this took fifteen years-to find my way back. By the time I came to the States, I was beginning to realize I was a sculptor, in the real sense of the word. And it shouldn't be underestimated how impossible that seemed in the '90s! In terms of the climate, in terms of the thing, in terms of the intellectual, the art-school system, everything. To be a sculptor with a capital “S” was really crazy.
By the time I came to the States, I was starting to accept certain things. I was kind of submitting to myself. I was realizing through friends like Aaron Curry that I was really looking at Henry Moore. Aaron looks at Henry Moore through Hanna-Barbera, this kind of amorphic-I was learning about my own history through friends in the States. You look back at these things, like Storm King. There's generally a tendency I see among a lot of my friends out here to really look at the heroic idea. But also it's a fantastically social thing that Calder was doing. David Smith too. Or Serra, definitely, very social.
I'm really fascinated by how the world chooses you for things that you're feeling and it almost happens by some kind of strange thing. The world pulls you in directions that you're already putting out by radar. So it makes a lot of sense. I'm more and more interested by the outdoor thing.
NL: Some of the works in your exhibition at Storm King this season, As I Went Out One Morning, have had a major impact when exhibited indoors, but have never before been viewed outside. How does the significance of a work change for you when works move outdoors?
TH: I always felt that Striding Figure II (Ghost) was meant to be outside. The sculpture talks a lot about Calder, who uses these shaped, flat planes to almost play in space. In a way, they hint at form and then they're not. Plus, there also these sort of organic, strange forms—I see them like tree branches or bones and branches in trees. I made it in the studio with the back door open, so it was against the sky. So I almost made it like I was outdoors.
We're showing a series of walking figures, which is a big theme for me. And that will be the first time these really major pieces are put together. And so it will have a more formal thing, have a thing with Calder, have a thing with trees, I'm really hoping. In a way, I, and the sculpture, will be kind of relieved to be there. That sculpture had to carry a lot of heavy, emotional baggage for me in England.
NL: A lot of the works on permanent exhibition at Storm King are more abstract than the striding figures you're including in the exhibition. Could you speak to the relationships in your work to both abstraction and representation?
TH: It's hard to say it's about your generation but [I] think this is probably true. In the twentieth century, the really great debate was between abstraction and figuration. You could say all the seminal debates were—I mean you could even say between performance art and abstract painting. The use of the body in performance art is seen as more radical in that way now than abstract painting, which was seen as more market-oriented. I knew pretty quickly that to use the figure as a vehicle you need to make or paint it. Or to sublimate it, let's say—to not use my body. The most acceptable way was to use your body yourself. I was rediscovering the body in a very European sense—I was looking at [Joseph] Beuys and I was realizing that there was a big communication between Beuys and [Auguste] Rodin. I actually came to Rodin through Beuys, which is the first time in history that's happening, right? Beuys talked a lot about the dynamism of the body and the action of the body. And then it was Rodin who talked a lot about the body, you know, in action . . . So that was kind of percolating.
And then I saw Documenta 9, which I guess was Jan Hoet's Documenta. I was really young and I saw the Franz West, those heads that were trash cans. You know, that were like these mouths. I was like really astonished by those. And the Thomas Schütte ceramic figures on the roof of the Fridericianum. I was at a moment when I was also discovering Marlene Dumas . . . I guess it was very a European sense of the body. And then I became really interested in the idea of the monument, and the idea of how art enters society, in a way.
So these debates, I felt, were relevant, and made me wonder. And I also was interested in this idea of the human figure being a kind of heroic creature and a kind of powerful creature and also a very vulnerable creature, and how power is represented. The body had been removed of power. It was broken down. It was ripped apart . . . And I was interested in energy and power. You know, of the sports person or the powerful political person. I was looking at those things, again, trying to understand them and how an artist represents and, or deals with them. In a more sublimated sense than directly politically, acting in that way, which I felt I couldn't do.
By the time I got to LA, the mental space here was so big. You know, you had Paul McCarthy, you had Mike Kelley—they both deal with the body. And Chris Burden. . . . So they really gave me permission. By the time I got out here, I thought, “Right.” I had none of the shame, the European shame, that you carry around with you if you're European, or the need to be ironic. Because the history of Europe is so big that the only real way you can handle it in any logical way is by making fun of it, in a way. Or accept it's ridiculous . . . the kind of [Martin] Kippenberger strand of European art, which is really great. Or to completely reject the idea of the artist in the studio . . . But America allowed me to be in this more weird zone, emotionally and intellectually.
NL: You're speaking about getting outside of your body and creating sort of separate bodies. But there also seems to be a performative element in your work. Could you speak to this?
TH: I mean, really my first art works were performances. When I went into Jacob Kramer [College] in Leeds, there was a big performance thing there. This goes back to Beuys. Beuys had had a big impact on Leeds. He had this interest in these kind of industrial cities-so I had teachers there. I was just this wild eighteen year-old, but performance made sense to me because I was performing anyway at school. I was trying to survive by performing these characters, acting out these characters. In a way, to me, that made much more sense than sitting and drawing something. I mean, I was right up your face. So when I went to that school, performance made sense-I was setting things on fire, I was doing these drunken performances. And I was astounded to find that the art world would let this happen—you know, the things I had done at school a year before, and been expelled for, were suddenly cool there.
So for me, performance was my way into art, and it stayed with me. It's a really big part of the works. I always have this sort of thing, I guess it's been going on now for fifteen years, I always think, “I can't wait until this sculpture period is over and I'll go back to being a performance artist. Then I won't need this big space. And I won't have to explain myself as much.” So in a weird way—something about what I started to enjoy was the performance that was happening with the material. And this goes back again to Jackson Pollock, or Yves Klein. And I liked the idea of the object. It became reassuring to me that there was this object, this kind of record that wasn't a film. Performance always bothers me when you watch a film of it. That seems really wrong. It seems to have a much stronger connection to sculpture than it does to film. I like the idea of trying to have an object that people can walk around and over time, start to see actions within. Once you've established the object can do that, you start looking at Michelangelo in a different way. And you realize he was acting out certain things in the language of the sculpture . . . and that really fascinated me. I mean, that was another really big moment for me when I went to Florence and clocked that, and thought “Whoa!” It's a bit like, say you're an aspiring young script writer and you write movies and your whole thing is that you've been looking at films from the sixties onwards, and then you discover Shakespeare. And you realize that in fifteen-whatever . . . I had that with Michelangelo. I realized, “Whoa! In these sculptures, hundreds of years ago, he imbedded these ideas.” And that was shocking for me.
NL: One work we'll be including in the Storm King installation is Column I (Light House). To me, it seems to relate to performance; it relates to the figural; it relates to monuments; it relates to history and classical sculpture. Could you talk more about this work?
TH: Well, that piece is the beginning of a series of works that I envisage eventually being part of a kind environment that I would build. Where you've got these objects performing almost absurd, architectural roles. I almost see it like land art gone weird, because there's that nobleness of Donald Judd and James Turrell, whereas I wanted to bring the absurdity that I feel about it. I had my guys build a very, very simple architectural form in clay and then over a period of two or three nights, I—in a very consciously performative way, decided that I would act out this frustration between the formal, the architectural form, and this kind of subversion of it—humanizing of it. With that piece, you can see where things were dropped, you can see where I stopped, you can see where I became frustrated, all of this. There's a lot of almost time-based activity in that piece. And also, it has this consciously phallic, Freudian sense-as a male sculptor, you know, that's kind of bouncing around-the craziness of that. And yet the desire to make this form, the desire to have this thing. And at the same time, it's almost like I wanted the piece to-and this is why I think it's so exciting at Storm King—kind of be simultaneously a figure but also clearly [something else]—it's almost like when you get toys in cereal and they're like spoons with a head on the end of it. Then you can go right back to African and ancient American culture where they put a head on an object, or on top of a thing. It has this kind of weird territory between pop and a very ancient desire to humanize things. So there's almost in that sculpture kind of, it's like a column, it's like a building, it's a lighthouse. But it's also this kind of moment where a kind of human, sort of very, very human, weird desire comes in to kind of screw with all of that. And I guess you can say that a constant theme in my work is to bring back the hand, whether intellectually or philosophically-the human need to do something.
NL: That leads me to thinking about the difference between fine-art sculpture and more everyday objects. We're going to have a section of the exhibition that includes furniture and a lamp. Is that something you've included in an exhibition before?
TH: No, almost never. And that's something that's great about this show. With the advent of the jpeg and the photo, people see images from certain shows and from certain art fairs, or like one piece at the Whitney, or whatever. And they don't ever really get a sense of the studio. You know, the studio for me is the center of my life. It's where all these things go on. And there's a lot of works in the studio that don't make it out into the marketplace or to shows, normally. Sometimes because I don't want to, sometimes because the world doesn't want to. But in a way, these pieces are seats that I made for myself. And lamps, because I don't like extreme lighting at night. I like shadows. Shadows are really interesting when you're a sculptor. And so I'd made these lamps and these chairs. And in my mind, it was a kind of homage to Franz West, and it was a kind of homage to Brancusi. I love the idea that Brancusi lived in his studio and inhabited it. So you have these moments of radical, high Modernism in his studio, and then, like, a chair. There's this beautiful thing in that, that you kind of inhabit, in Brancusi's work, between these gleaming ideas of, you know, Madame Pogany . . . and the fact that he lived there, dogs ran around . . . same with [Pablo] Picasso. You see these images of him in the villa doing these seminal images and there are goats running around, and kids. So, in a way, the chairs are part of that. And it's nice, this is one of the first times that some of those works are being shown in the States. I've generally noticed Americans steer away—I find the Europeans want the underbelly more. I find the Americans generally want to see the hits, you know? And so that's a nice thing. For me, this is the first show in the United States where I'm showing some of the process and we're going from the outdoor, big bronzes—boom—through to pieces like “felty,” [Felt-S, 2009] which almost aren't art works, or the chairs.
NL: Can you talk more about the felt work?
TH: The felt is a really interesting piece because it ties back into work I was making in London. I had a very close relationship with an Italian artist, I'd say he's almost English now, called Enrico David, who was coming from this very strong, strange position when I met him of something between Arte Povera, which he really inhabited as an Italian, and also this kind of weird figuration. And when I met Enrico, my weird desire for figuration and his kind of collided.
Anyway, when I went to Marfa I was included in a residency at the Ballroom. Me and Aaron Curry were doing a show together. Something about being out there in West Texas, and yet you've also got this massive figure of [Donald] Judd there. Anyone going to Marfa is either filming a movie or going to see Judd. And me and Aaron were processing a lot of weird stuff. I had met Aaron very early on in my life in LA. We were removed from our life in LA, put in this desert with Judd—so that kind of brought out this extreme behavior in both of us that was very, very alcoholic. We were drinking from morning 'til night and in this weird room in Marfa. So I think what I was doing was processing all these pieces that I had kind of hidden. I was making a series of felt works almost as this kind of degenerate behavior, almost like going back to being a kid. We were sort of acting out all these kind of weird arguments like we we're kids, like getting mad at each other . . . it was an odd thing. That really was like a long, drawn-out performance. And the “felty”—I was making it with glue, just like when you're a child you're doing these crafts. The desire that both me and Aaron had was that we were going to do that show, then destroy a lot of that work-just light it up, boom, move on. You can almost say Judd is like the end of something. And so we were playing out this thing of being infantile, young artists messing with this whole idea of Judd, this shining example.
But anyway, Gordon VeneKlasen—I was working with Michael Werner [Gallery] at that time—kind of saved those pieces. I mean literally took them. And I was like, “If you want to have it, have it.” I was kind of rejecting them. And then as time went on, the years passed, I realized that that was really significant, and was kind of an outlet. That work had something in it that had something to do with that two weeks—or more, maybe two months—of behavioral weirdness. And so the piece is actually very important. I've made “feltys” that then feel like sanitized versions of that “felty.” That “felty” required, you know, two months of really weird, lonely, drunken behavior or something. So when you see that piece it's got this kind of feeling. It's like on the edge of a precipice, you know? . . . There was the whole thing that was going through my mind at that time that was like these almost—it's kind of hard to, at the time it seemed really logical, but where, again really, I guess you could say, where abstract and language and figuration kind of collide. And that I felt something had to be explored in that. Where this idea I've always struggled with, and I think most of my generation has always struggled with how to explain something—because you should be able to, right? And use language and not just be this kind of grunting expressionist: “Rar! It's like that.” And yet this feeling of some bigger, more powerful thing that breaks down these signs and symbols and signifiers. And to be an artist needing to have an idea of mystery. To be a studio artist, you have to have this idea of mystery, and that's inevitably clich&aeacute;d in our time. And so the kind of idea of language and of a sign and of a graphic and of a thing, and trying to blend that and pull it apart or cling to it, or whatever it was.
So the S-bend for me, I began really seeing in people's faces. It was almost like every time I drew a face, an “S” would come. Or a coin would come, which is an “O”, which is also a coin . . . So I began to see all these symbols at that time and I began to see that that was linked to my idea of a thing that I could say—that that's an “S” and that's an “O.” And then the parts that were sort of morphing out of that. And so there was a kind of, again a kind of treatise on how to make the face; what did the face look like for me. When I looked at a face I saw signs and symbols that someone in the 1920s didn't see. Or when I see a face, I see Cubism in a face, right now we all do. We also see cinema in a face, we also see advertising in a face. We see all these things now that artists not even that long ago didn't see. They looked at a face differently. Giacometti looked at face differently from how I look at a face. He had a different set of projections that were going on. So in a weird way, I was trying—you're going back into these things and trying to process them and figure it out. The idea that just like, “Hey, it went like this, this, this, and this and now we've got, ‘ta-da!’” I'm still not sure it's that simple.
NL: When we were walking around at Storm King, you had talked about Spoon IV as something that had the same type of morphological changes and different types of connections.
TH: Yeah, the spoon fascinated me because the spoon has this central place in Surrealism, of course, and in Modernism. [Alberto Giacometti's] Spoon Woman or Woman with Her Throat Cut—you know, this spoon idea. And the Meret Oppenheim—the cup and spoon. And yet the spoon, for me, had significance because I grew up around a lot of drug users and the spoon has a different use in that culture. Plus the spoon for me, when I made it, you could sit in it. Whenever I made these big spoons, my kids would jump in them and sort of, enjoy being in them, slide down them. So again, I'm taking these things you feel should be run out of gas, like the face, or all these things, and I can't quite let them go.
The spoon, the bowl, the lamp—these things that are domesticated and that are, on some level, also really reassuring and are still part of my life. Just sitting in this room, I can see a spoon, a lamp, a coin . . . But I'm not quite content to just let them be these pop objects. Or these completed signs. I want to go back into their history a bit. I'm also interested by the spoons you see that were used in Aztec culture, and the pleasure of those, and the fascination of those. I'm trying to wade in and figure out what they're doing to me emotionally as opposed to what they're doing to me intellectually. That's the debate, you know. If you're a studio artist, it ultimately comes down to that left brain, right brain thing. What you feel you should do and yet what you're driven to do, let's say.
NL: At Storm King, we are going to display a number of your Coins in an installation with your work entitled Dome. As you'll be installing it yourself, that's going to involve more of a studio practice in the exhibition space.
TH: What's kind of a weird albatross that hangs around your neck when you're seen as a sculptor, people then want the sculptures to arrive and unpack them . . . So then you're suddenly not allowed to be involved. “Well, ok, you're this kind of artist, right?” And anyone who visits my studio, spends time . . . there's constantly things that are finished and unfinished and occupying spaces in an installation—like manner. And there are certain pieces that have no completion that I've made, like the Dome. I made it first for Scotland—I was working on a series of buildings. I was looking at the idea of the museum and I was thinking about how I was taught about the museum being this very, very political space and very, very contextual, and negative-representing power . . . And then I began to think about the museum as an imaginary place for me, and as a utopic place. Again, another thing is dystopia, apocalypse, and utopia. I think we're on a bridge with that whole thing. I feel very utopic at the moment—it's an LA thing. So I was thinking about these utopic spaces. And I was thinking about this utopic idea of an artist that doesn't have any concerns, you know? I was imagining an artist without any political, financial concerns, which is almost an impossible idea, right? Particularly as a sculptor. You have to go through, pay your dues, before you, at sixty, maybe you can get there. I was fascinated by the idea of this open-ended idea of sculptures that never get finished, and buildings that never get made, and fantasies that are just absolutely ridiculous on arrival but nevertheless have this utopia in them. And so in those pieces they never quite get completed.
I had a series that was in [Museum] Abteiberg in Germany that was called “The Dream Room,” which is again, the same idea of works that don't go to completion, that don't really have a market. It's impossible, in a way. But that's not the point, but that they kind of—that you live with them and they change constantly as you work with them. One of the great ironies, the market of course can—I've still been able to do some pieces that some people are like, well, that's not your work. That room being one, that I kind of hold to it. And what I'm fascinated by is that you go through the felt piece as kind of like a sign towards it. In [As I Went Out One Morning], I think that's something I was really shocked from the beginning, that there are those pieces that are classically kind of “Boom!” as an image. And then that image breaks down throughout the show and gets more complicated, and closer to the studio. What I'm really hoping in that big room is a discussion about what's finished and what's not. I mean, I make objects that are clearly finished. But I make objects that appear clearly finished and they're not finished in my mind. And then I make pieces that are not finished in my mind and they are not finished in the real sense. And part of the enjoyment is that there's an opening there. And there's a kind of room for a different kind of investigation of what a sculpture can be. And again, in a way, reassure myself that I can still take a room and try to turn that into a space with different ideas of form.
The coins are very important to me because they are a kind of currency. They're a currency that escapes currency, let's say. Because as the artist becomes currency, which we're witnessing, it's odd that, in a way, the coins protect me from that. A lot of my objects have a literal life-saving function in them. It should never be, you know . . . the sculptures are made for me, and yes, you have to let them out of the studio, and in this culture you have to, and all of that. But the ultimate dream would be to do what David Smith did. To build this environment and have that feeling of, you know—or like Brancusi did in the studio.
NL: Another thing that we're putting on view that is also not that typical for you but also have a lot more to do with process is a group of drawings. Can you speak about why you agreed to include them this time?
TH: If people visit the studio they quickly see that I draw every single day. And that's not an effort, not something I feel I should do, or I'm getting better at or not better at. It's literally for me like some people do yoga. Drawing for me is a way of calming down and focusing, and balancing myself in the world, and reminding myself of what's up and down and all of that. The drawings have almost never been shown. I generally don't usually feel very good about showing them. But in this case, it's almost like you're allowing me this environment, this full kind of picture of my life as an artist, in a way. And the house is almost this kind of—it has fantastic vibes, number one. And number two, it is this bridge between the domestic nature of Storm King, which is some guy bought this land and bought these things. Which is a beautiful feeling always, and is at the basis of all museums. I mean MoMA really is just that.
And the way you discover the house, the drawings feel really logical. That you would go in a room and you'll see the drawings—they're usually shown in a room and they're quite intimate for me. They're the closest thing I have to say, showing my journals if I was writer or something, or my diaries. I view them in a very, very serious way. This sounds really weird, but I can't handle them going out into the world without me being very in control of that, for some reason. They're like children, in that way. They're very, very private to me. And I believe I get very nervous when they're looking at my drawings because I worry they'll see too much. You know what I mean? But they don't. I mean, most people are just like, “Okay, whatever.” But the drawings, as you can see, I lay out ideas, I lay out ideas for shows, I lay out ideas that are ten years and twenty years in the making. And so I'm thinking in a twenty or thirty year time span in the drawings sometimes. That's why I keep it very close to me 'cause they're kind of guides for those times coming up and for a body of work or for a show that hasn't presented itself yet, you know? You're kind of setting up, “Oh, if I ever get this opportunity, I would do this thing.” So in that way, they're not really, again, they're not really finished in that sense of “Ta-da! Look at my drawings!” you know?
I love drawings. I mean, I collect drawings so I'm a real fan of drawings. How other artists made drawings. I think they're a very underestimated art form.
NL: In this exhibition, we're displaying three works that directly reference the animal world—Snake, Rattlesnake Figure, and Standing Owl I. We love having all of these at Storm King, of course-but could you speak to about the presence of animals within your work?
TH: Now that's a really a specific thing to LA. And it's funny because people imagine when you say you live in LA . . . they think of the Hollywood thing. And they think fake . . . not real, sort of messing with Disney . . . And yeah, okay, that's all there. But, I've actually found LA to be a very elemental place, believe this or not. Elemental in that you can traverse in the city between an extremely man-made, raw, urban environment, and one day you can go from that to a very, very, raw, wild environment, which shouldn't be forgotten. LA can have wildfires in a way I don't know of any other city having these kinds of dangers. And earthquakes and wild animals wandering into town. I mean, we regularly have bears walk into town and wild cats, like mountain lions. So LA is really weird. I mean, I'm from a city, and I lived in London. It's not like in London you're going to find a bear in your garden.
So when I first moved here, I was really struck by that. I was working in southeast LA that was extremely raw—there were gangs, it was this raw, wild, out of control industrial landscape. And really, I mean, threadbare existence in that bit of where I was working, Vernon, South Boyle Heights, this kind of threadbare, raw kind of thing that had this kind of memory of Leeds. Leeds has similar landscapes in certain parts. And then at night, I would go home to Tujunga which is right on the edge of the foothills of the Los Angeles Forest. So I was discovering there'd be these giant owls in my garden. I mean, really giant owls. And I don't really have an experience with wild animals like that. I'd never—I knew it from my childhood from books and from stories I used to read. So I was almost like, an owl was coming to me like, “Whoa!” I knew an illustrated owl, like what an owl looked like in a kids' book. But these were real owls . . . I had a lot of that in LA.
Rattlesnakes were on our land, I mean, we had a lot of rattlesnakes. And I was completely fascinated, like a child, the first time. You know see a rattlesnake and it really rattles and you're like, “Whoa!” which is the opposite of the movie experience. I'd had more of the movie experience in my childhood in Leeds. Rattlesnakes to me were a magical thing in a cartoon, like Jungle Book or something. But I was really discovering, these are real rattlesnakes and if they bite you, you'll need to be rushed to the hospital . . . and I just had children and they were discovering them and we were discovering them together. Both me and my child had to go like, “Let's be careful here, this is a rattlesnake.” So that was really going on in LA and those experiences were very seminal. And I was being asked by my daughter, “Dad, can you make an owl? Can you draw an owl?” And I'm an artist and I couldn't draw an owl. These kinds of things are interesting me, you know? I had no skills to, you know—Picasso could draw a bull, like that [snaps], or a dove [snaps]. But I was kind of like, “Wow, I really don't understand.” So that made me think a lot about that, and then look at the animal in my work. And the animalistic behavior or these kind of things. So that came out really, really strongly in Los Angeles, you know.
NL: What I love about having both Standing Owl I and having more difficult work in this exhibition, like the striding figures, is that total sum-the availability of so many different ways into your work, and the many levels on which that makes this exhibition accessible.
TH: Yeah, that is a real excitement. For some people, this is strange thing—the owl's really unacceptable for them. Let's say, a really high art audience will approach the owl—and even actually, in the beginning, collectors had real—“Hey! Shouldn't this be more serious? What are you doing making an owl?” So it's nice to have those points in your work where just when people start to go, “Hey, this is a really, heavy duty experience . . . ,” that you come up with an owl because that's what it's like to be in a studio.
So the owl, like I say, for some of my friends, or fellow artists, was a tough one. Like, “Are you being stupid here? What is this?” And on the other hand, it was a real moment, a bridge, you know? And I'm very, very interested in bridging. I really like to do shows when very different audiences respond in different ways. They are meant to just go, “That's someone making an owl to the best of their abilities.” And that's what I can do these days, unfortunately. I like that bridge with the public-because my kids are a public.
NL: And at Storm King it's perfect.
TH: Perfect, right! Because people are coming and they're walking around looking at the fall colors, for example, and then that thing.
NL: I feel like we've covered so many different topics. I'd love to just talk to you a little bit about the title of the exhibition—As I Went Out One Morning, also the title of a 1967 Bob Dylan song, and how you came to choose it.
TH: Well, there's a couple things I could be really clear about it. I'm a big music fan, and music's had an important symbolic impact on my life. I think if you grew up in the '70s, let's say, some of the avant-garde experiences that you could have were with film and were with music. That's how avant-garde ideas came to me. I didn't have a lot of experience with art until I was a little older. I knew I felt interested in what it was like to be alive. I was kind of fascinated—I was already having that third person experience, “Okay, there's my school, there's my parents, there's me, and then there's these weird dreams.” I was already trying to figure that out. And so, in a way, for me, at a certain moment, let's say, first it was the Beatles because my dad was such a Beatles fan. So in the Beatles, if you listen to Magical Mystery Tour—“I Am the Walrus,” that's coming from a very high art thing: Dadaism, word association, absurd poetry, and playing with words: “I am he as you are he, we . . . ” And I latched on to that. I was like, “Whoa! What is that?” And the same thing with Dylan. My mom and dad—I'll forever thank them for playing this music when I was very young.
When you have this very infertile, kind of brutal, experience of life—that you go to school and everyone's in a bad mood and it's like, “Learn this and be like this, and . . . ” Music was this kind of other place. It's a habit that I've clung to, which is that if I listen to music, it helps me get into a state of freedom, like intellectual freedom or emotional freedom.
So Dylan was massive for me at one moment. Like I discovered Bob Dylan and it was like “Boom!” And I was later in life struck with [the 1967 Bob Dylan album] John Wesley Harding. You have the '60s, you have this whole psychedelic thing going on and everyone's going really crazy, you know. And then Dylan suddenly returns to almost this very primitive, almost—he himself almost described it, I think, I can't remember if he did or someone else, but those songs feel like ancient folk songs, you know? They almost sound like these Old English sort of things. And taking from that, that album, that song, “As I Went Out One Morning” is about Tom Paine, who was a revolutionary English writer who came to the States and helped America revolt against the English. I'm really struck by that. That this British guy, English guy, was coming out to the States and going to France and saying, “Yes, have a revolution!” And I love that Dylan in those songs, at the height of psychedelia, was kind of playing with these weird things.
And I guess the New England landscape has a significance for an English person who's escaped that system, the class system, all that baggage. So I'm interested in that song on multiple levels as kind of giving me freedom, giving me space. And I like the idea of it: “As I Went Out One Morning.” I mean, literally my experience in LA is like that. Kind of entering this new thing, this new way of being, this new land, and this new thing. And using very primitive, traditional things to do that.
NL: It seemed to me, just thinking directly of the song's title, that you might also have been inspired by your time walking around Storm King for three days in the snow this January, laying out the exhibition. I know you thought of the title just after this visit.
TH: Absolutely. I was walking around in it. I was walking around this, like, New England thing. And I was in a very, very happy state. I felt really amazing—something about the snow and the . . . I had a very emotional, sort of primitive—I mean primitive human experience of the land and thinking about these settlers and thinking about what it means to be an artist. I just kind of had that music, that album, sort of going around my head. The whole album's so beautiful. Of course it also has “All Along the Watchtower” and all these songs that have massive significance in terms of finding space and figuring out who you are. That album has this kind of primitive fear in it. Almost I imagine, like a Shaker. These Quakers and Shakers—all these people out in these new colonies trying to figure out who they were. This was some sort of fantasy that was going around in my head.
NL: Was there also a way in which being in Mountainville, New York, so close to Woodstock—such an important site for music and young people in the 1960s, also influenced you in choosing the title As I Went Out One Morning?
TH: Correct, right, that whole idea. And Bob was out at the Pink House [in West Saugerties, New York], these kinds of ideas. And then David Smith was out at Bolton's Landing. Bolton's Landing has a whole immigrant thing of arriving and setting up a community . . . So those ideas were kind of flying around my head. I was fantasizing around them. And I am an immigrant in Los Angeles, you have to remember. I walked out in this land, like, naked. I didn't know how to survive. And people here—let's say Native Americans—helped me survive, you know? Taught me how to do it. So there's some sort of resonance for me in that.
And this is my first, big American show, it should also be pointed out! You know, I live here, I'm an American. But I'm still new here. And this is virgin territory for me. I've never done a show this big in the United States—that's a big, big, big moment. After just having done my first big show in England, which I'd never done before too. So there's a big relief after that. England was very important but hard, emotionally. This is very exciting, As I Went Out One Morning. There's a future, you know? And in England, I didn't have a future. Does that make sense?
NL: So I feel like we've gotten to a lot of really great points.
TH: And it's kind of a new discussion. I haven't had that one quite like that before. It's great.
NL: Anything else you think we should talk about?
TH: No. I feel really satisfied.
Special thanks to our installation team: Mike Seaman, Joel Longinott, Armando Ocampo, and Mike Odynsky; our curatorial colleagues: Theresa Choi, Interim Curatorial Assistant and Mary Ann Carter, Executive Assistant; and the entire staff at Storm King Art Center and Ripple Studios. Except where noted, all photography by Jerry L. Thompson; design by Gina Rossi