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MARLENA DONOHUE


ROBERT THERRIEN:

L.A.'S BAROQUE EXEMPLAR


The word "baroque" is an apt one to describe the state of sculpture in Los Angeles. Baroque comes to mind (even in the most austere conceptual work) because sculpture-based work here shares an intense and odd sort of theatricality. Perhaps because there is so much sprawl, L.A. artists cannot resist the baroque temptation to play with the telescoping plasticity of real space. Artists here turn 2-D work into high, sculptural relief, turn individual sculptures into installations, and installations become multi-room environments that require circumambulation, engagement of the body and senses, even aerial readings. L.A. sculpture is baroque because that exuberant adjective counterfoils “classical,” and there has always been a certain suspicion in L.A. of any art found too refined, too academic, too art-for-its-own-sake-ish. L.A. avoids the academic pedestal like a bad rash.

Besides an undeniable insistence on fusing the viewing space with the space of real time and the corollary idea that any material and any site is legitimate in art, the overarching aesthetic might be described as a cross between assemblage and conceptualism, two tacks that found particularly fertile soil in L.A. when it was first having its artistic persona shaped. As to the first, assemblage here is an offshoot of the tradition of Surrealism and Dada objects imported by wartime exiles such as Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp. The second parental strain of conceptualism began the strategy that the artist’s idea, his/her line of conceptual investigation, whether rational or para-rational, was as much art as the tangible, salable bronze thing propped on a pedestal.

And for all our fame as roller-blading, half-clad fadists, there is a tendency in sculptors from all camps to lean heavily toward the cerebral and methodical. Current assemblage-based and conceptual sculpture often has a quality of ultra clean craft and deliberate, purposeful process.

There is in L.A. now (as there was interestingly enough in the European Baroque) a constant dialogue between art, science and technology. Either the work embraces science, spoofs it, or de-structuralizes its methods. Tight linear thinking may be applied to the process and/or content of 3-D work whose net effect is to unhinge the very method of rational knowing. Much work looks at how we know and the implications or ideas housed in positivist vs. paralogical (eg., non-Western, Freudian, semiotic) systems of truth-making and experience. The transience of time and memory as emblems of reason are issues often taken up. I would venture to describe this as a kind of unspoken effort to find a unified field theory that will, in artistic terms, reconcile--either seriously or as an impossible trope--science and spirit, technology and psyche, high and low art.


“No Title (White Beds),” plastic/enamel, 1997.





“Under the Table,” wood/enamel, 1994.





“No Title (Oil Can),” tin on steel, 1997.





“No Title (Blue Plastic Plates),” plastic, 1999.

Nowhere are all of these ideas better exemplified than in the work of downtown artist Robert Therrien, currently on view at Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA).

Therrien’s art--sculpture mainly, but drawing and reliefs as well--is based on ultra simple, universally loaded visuals on a par with (but distinct from) the silhouette of the hand that conveys “stop” in every language to all cultures. Some examples: the cartoonish shape of the stork carrying a bundle (references to love, marriage, innocence, birth, hope, corny sappy Hallmark sentiment, etc.), the motif of the bed (with its ideas of repose, illness, intimacy, dream life, comfort), a tiny horned red-devil face like the one used on fireworks (implying the naughty imp or real evil). These shapes are used both for their psychological valence and as components of pure form; Therrien is able to move seamlessly between the two references. In one provocative untitled work (Therrien leaves out titles so that the experience is like an open slate, bring what you will), larger than life size beds in white plastic and enamel are attached back-to-back to form a spiraling helix that takes up the whole viewing space. In another, a seven-foot stack of common dishes made from colored plastic teeter in a stack that amounts to both a study and spoof of classical contra posto. In another work reliefs made in a familiar figure eight shape resemble a snowman from Therrien's childhood winters. Turned on its side in another work, it morphs into a cartoonish black cloud of the sort that portends misfortune in a comic strip world.

You will be inclined to think of Claes Oldenburg’s giant Pop objects when you see this work, but this is not Pop Art. Therrien is not concerned with making subversive social comments, addressing mass media or using repetition to show us how high brow culture and common life are one, though these ideas do inevitably sneak into this smart work as subtext.

Though you will see works that have radical simplicity, insistent objecthood and a look of industrial fabrication we link with Minimalism, Therrien is no neo-Minimalist. He displays clear interest in narratives, embraces the evocative component, allows the hand of the artist to show and, most visibly, employs symbols with deep collective resonances.

I have no doubt that the artist picks and creates his images/objects so that they will have the most varied and random metaphoric references. There are so many simultaneous allusions here--from pure Bauhaus truth to materials, to poetic dislocations of logic, to the wild, morphing reality in Loony Tunes--that it is a real challenge to decipher them all.

Therrien has a knack for picking and re-using an eccentric, evocative storehouse of images/shapes/objects from simple, recognizable shapes so as to transmit complex meanings in the most innocuous ways to both the art smart and the art naïve. Under the Table is a simple table and chairs set--understood, used and related to by all. Here it is simplified and enlarged so that you can walk beneath to be dwarfed by it and sheltered under it. The work made me feel small and powerless, evoking early childhood memories of having to sit at some then gargantuan table. Like much of the work here, Therrien’s beds and tables make you feel Lilliputian or like Alice after eating the wrong side of the mushroom. Playing with form and scale, making table or bed tower over or encompass our space, giving banal shapes the valence of emblems, he puts you in touch with forgotten feelings and experiences related to diminutive scale, to looking up at reality from a small stature as we do in childhood or in altered states like dreaming.

That said, I do not want to conclude that Therrien’s primary interest is to plumb some collective unconscious for Jungian meaning or deep analytic content about his or our childhood closets. Like the best sculptors, Therrien is above all else a driven, even anal formalist. He seems constantly aware that whatever else art does or doesn’t have to say, shape, color, spatial relationships, line, light is the stuff through which art speaks. It is the subtle and clever calibration of these building blocks registering in our bodies that make art rich.