Interview by Filep Motwary
Thomas Houseago’s sculptures portray fear and passion, life and death, whimsy, hypnotic geometric walls, and the odd sexual egg. The only thing more fascinating is that this world-class sculptor is suddenly also a world-class painter, documenting his beloved California, his trauma, and his future.
I sat down with Houseago, who was born in Leeds and is now 50, to discuss everything under his moon and sun.
FILEP MOTWARY: You started painting at 50? Why didn’t you paint sooner?
THOMAS HOUSEAGO: I actually started with painting first—way back, in Leeds. It was my act of “resistance”; sculpture came later. I am a sculptor, yet people like to assume everyone can only do one thing, or at least one thing well. I convinced myself of that as well. But the truth is you just have to give yourself permission. I’m from the north of England, David Hockney is from the north of England, from Bradford—right next to Leeds—so his painting is almost in my blood; his journey to LA, the radical search for beauty in his work I had in me somewhere. But I felt I didn’t have the right to really be a painter. I didn’t feel I had the right temperament to paint.
I eventually went to meet David in his studio, and it completely zapped me, and changed me, almost by osmosis. He gave me permission, just by being. I felt I had finally come to a kind of artistic “home” with David. It’s very difficult to describe, but it was like he knew me: he immediately talked to me about Van Gogh and the danger of that energy.
He showed me another way of life and I drove home from that meeting weeping. Recently I saw his new flower paintings in France, and they blew my mind. I hope to one day capture that kind of hope—of light, of life. My California paintings are my attempt, in a way; my ode to David, to California, to the love I feel.
FM: Has David Hockney seen your paintings?
TH: That’s actually how I met David. He went to see the Black Paintings at Gagosian during that show in 2017. I was totally shocked he had gone, and he invited me to his Hollywood Hills studio—that’s how it began. I always felt, and still feel, safe, free, and at ease when I’m with him. My work obviously shifted dramatically after getting to know David.
FM: I can see that. Your use of vibrant colors and landscapes. And what about your black paintings—who or what inspired them?
TH: Fear and a desire to live. The black paintings were about mourning, about a total loss of hope. They were mirrors, and I didn’t like what I saw so I tried for years to “finish” them in a different way and I lost; they won. They are really about that hopeless fear and yet a desire to live.
FM: “Fear and a desire to live” makes me think of your Bucha painting flanked by the sun and the moon—the magnificent works you created for the Centre Pompidou-Metz. Do you watch the news?
TH: Yeah, I do. I’ve been watching the January 6th attack [hearings] and, of course, following the war in Ukraine. I think, probably, we Europeans feel it in our bodies. This degree of violence to be unleashed is terrible to watch. I keep trying not to let myself get too consumed by it because you could say I’m, on some level, helpless. But on another level, my job as an artist is I’m a set of eyes. I’m a set of eyes and a nervous system.
FM: I totally agree. You’re describing all these things happening around you and inside of you at the same time and it seems to tie in with the title of your upcoming show, WE, at the Sara Hildén Art Museum in Finland. What is it about and how long have you been working on this project?
TH: I think I’ve been working on it spiritually for a very long time, and I think now in very real-time. I opened my eyes to other modes of creativity and understood the WE as joined creative energy; I opened up. This exhibition is hopefully going to tell a story of my journey from isolation: the real hopelessness of trauma through a painful rebirth into accepting love, feeling love, healing, friendship, opening up to and celebrating the collaborators—friends in my life—who were ambassadors of hope for me, no matter what I went through.
FM: Were you open to it?
TH: I was begrudgingly open. I thought art was difficult because sculpture is so difficult. It’s the most brutally impossible mode of creating. As a sculptor, you are trying to reach out. It’s a social act; putting these objects into space requires a social contract.
FM: It’s a big show and you invited your friends Brad Pitt and Nick Cave to be part of it. How did it come about?
TH: The show at the Sara Hildén Museum of Fine art is a show that had been planned for a while. First of all, it’s an incredible museum. It’s entirely female-founded and female-run, and they’ve been following my work forever and asking me to be part of a show. Sarianne Soikkonen is one of the really wonderful sorts of curators and thinkers. A kind, super thoughtful woman. She said, “Hey, how do you feel about finally doing the show? We’ve got you. We know you’ve been through this weird journey. We’ve seen the paintings in Brussels, and we want to do this.” I said, “Well, I’m not the me I was anymore. I’ve got to be honest. I can’t function like that. I don’t want to function like that.” They were interested and said, “Well, what do you mean?” I said, “Well, I’m spending a lot of time with these friends, and this means a lot to me.” Nick was making these ceramics. He’d been in my studio way back during Ghosteen time, and we had a lot of discussions about clay and art. Nick challenged me in the most beautiful ways and that was how I returned to art.
For me, Brad is a brother, family, my collaborator in life! He made me aware of the kind of “performance” sculpture is for me. We kind of parallel play. That was the first creative WE. I loved watching the creative dialogue between the group of us, the works they were making. It felt wrong to do this first show and not include them, that journey, too. My art upbringing, my trauma upbringing is, “I’m me. I’m an island. I’m the artist. I blah, blah, blah. I, I, I, I.” I started realizing, “No, I’m not an I. I’m a WE.” When I drop the notions of my originality and my ego and wanting, I have no I. I’m indistinguishable from anyone who tries to connect to me creatively. “WE become the dialogue.” That was a huge breakthrough, just in terms of grounding me, and making me realize I wasn’t alone. And so very quickly, the WE came about, in the most obvious way.
FM: I also wanted to ask you why we use color when we want to speak about happiness. Because it’s also rare in your work.
TH: Yes, that’s a great question; color is fascinating. I was always really drawn to color. I have a sort of embarrassing childhood love story with Van Gogh and was reading his letters. Color, for him, was a highly spiritual thing. I think I related to it without “knowing” it. Then, as I got into sculpture, I realized that if you look at the Moon Room, or if you look at, as my work got, let’s say, plaster-like, I realized God was in the shadows. And, by God, I mean the sublime, hope, that space—God was in form. God was in the complex tonnage of white plaster or clay with its cast. I saw it in that. Similar to when you look closely at an egg or a shell or the surface of the moon. So that, for me, was God at that time. My monsters, my totemic whatever you want to call it, were my struggle with, “How do I connect to God? Can I connect to God? Am I going to be eaten alive by this? Am I going to survive it?” Then I was kind of landing on these forms, the egg, the moon—trying to find God in these forms, surfaces, and shadows but struggling to reconcile it. Instead of falling into darkness, I landed in Malibu. In Malibu, I’ve found happiness: true friendship, love, joy, and happiness. There are still the dark times: I still need to paint out that poison, but I began weaving in the beauty I saw, memorializing it. The sunsets, moonrise over the ocean, and the trail runs through the hills, oaks, and flowers. My eyes and heart opened to the abundance of beauty: as Nick says in Carnage, “The moon is a girl with the sun in her eyes”.
FM: I love your references.
TH: We decide to find things beautiful. I don’t agree with nihilism anymore. I don’t agree with pure, scientific thought that two and two equal four because it’s not my experience. If two and two just equaled four, I would have never wanted to make art.
FM: Who does Thomas Houseago hold sacred, besides David Hockney?
TH: Well, for me, as a fatherless man, I was blessed to find these guides, these brilliant men, who I could look to. For me, it’s Charles Ray, whose work has impacted me profoundly from the day I saw the fire truck parked outside the Whitney in 93! And who has become, with his wife Silvia, deep friends. Then François Pinault—without him, I wouldn’t be where I am. I’m not sure I would have “survived” the art world. There are too many key works he supported and encouraged that wouldn’t exist without him. But then there are sacred figures in deeper time that I feel I need: right now, I’ve been looking a lot at Giotto. Certain frescos are really in my consciousness: how narrative is depicted, his use of gold, this symbolic vibration in everything he paints—from a boulder to St Francis!
FM: You often talk about the close community of friends you’ve been able to create for each other, but I saw that you had done some outreach work in your wider community. Tell me about your work in Watts, LA, and with The Orchid Foundation in New York.
TH: Deep in the pandemic, Flea [from Red Hot Chili Peppers] and the great artist Lauren Halsey was going to Nickerson Gardens in Watts, to just keep people fed in those awful first months of the pandemic. It really impacted me: I was honored to meet these incredible people refusing to give up hope, and making real, direct change. As I started to rebuild my own life, step by step, I realized it was essential to be part of adding beauty in any way I could. I wanted to specifically help young people who have difficult backgrounds and struggles if I could somehow help in creating opportunities.
And, through a series of almost magic coincidences, I met the incredible actress Nichole Galicia and her Orchid Foundation. I’m on the board of The Orchid Foundation—please check out their web- site and donate: this is a grassroots effort to make real change in the lives of Black and Brown kids from underserved communities. It’s a mentorship and scholarship program that’s really personal and thorough. The work they do is really special, super niche and hands-on. Every year we host an art-based fundraiser to provide college money to kids that otherwise wouldn’t be able to go. I’m proud to say that we put five girls through college last year. I insisted that we add boys this year so let’s see what we can get done. The web address is www.theorchidfdn.org.
FM: It’s interesting that you went from paintings to sculptures again. In the end, if I can say this, this is who you are. These humongous sculptures.
TH: Well, yeah, it’s for sure something I have been, something I needed to be. And I’m just in the last weeks starting to approach it again, hopefully with more mindfulness. But where I’m at now I’m just so in love, astonished by art forms of all kinds, all attempts at connection be it painting, sculpture, music, or film. With this latest sculpture, I’m going back into a monumental work that I’m making for the new LACMA building, where I’m hoping to really reach out to the city in a way I normally would never get the opportunity to. Its genesis began years ago when Trump first started talking about this “beautiful wall” he was going to build to separate the US and Mexico—this totally perverse statement. And, as an artist, I felt the need to try to approach a vortex where sculpture, architecture, politics, and something carrying hope could manifest. I had begun the project and Michael Govan [the director of LACMA] saw it and, without words, instantly understood what I was trying to do. In fact, he saw where I was trying to go and thus years of discussion began. Michael is a visionary, heart and soul—a true believer in artists and art. He also paved the way early for a WE vision of LA: he saw all of this potential that I only now am living and so it’s a deeply meaningful project. I have given, and will give, everything I can to it. I feel so proud our city has one of the greatest architects ever, Peter Zumthor, design this museum. It has been such a joy to meet and work with Peter. Michael does that: brings things together. From day one, he led the way: “Hey, we are all here in LA, a fantastic creative community—let’s bring everyone together. We can learn and nourish each other.” And it’s happening and it’s magic. My Beautiful Wall (for LA) will be my addition, my gift to LA because it’s a city that took me in, and loved on me and I love it with all my heart.
FM: As someone who makes these enormous bodies, whether they are abstract or defined, did you ever compare your body to one of your sculptures?
TH: Where I stand now, with what I now know, yes, totally. These figures were like my hidden alter egos—my demons, my tormentors, yet also my protectors: they held the trauma for me, so they saved me too. So, I tried to find the sublime in forms: the egg, the moon, the temple—places I could literally hide inside, trying to find a space for the sacred, for God. So, the simple answer is yes, because every work I make, from a big baby to a wall, to a thin skeleton, is me. It’s some itera- tion of my body. It’s my way of owning myself, reinventing myself: reincarnation, rebirth, death, dying,
connecting, loving, and releasing. And I can only hope that offering my journey it connects other humans, and makes something manifested, visible that can hopefully be of help.
FM: I totally understand and I think that with what you said before, the WE part, that it’s not about me, but it’s about us coming together and resolving things. I think it’s a perfect epilogue for this interview.
TH: One hundred percent.
Courtesy of Dapper Dan Magazine, Volume 26, FW2022
Houseago grew up in Leeds West Yorkshire, where his mother was a teacher. He did his foundation year at Jacob Kramer College in Leeds, and in 1991 went to Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in London.
He then studied at De Ateliers in Amsterdam, where he came into contact with figurative artists such as Marlene Dumas, Thomas Schütte, and Luc Tuymans.
He lived for eight years in Brussels before moving to Los Angeles in 2003. Houseago held his first solo exhibition, titled Serpent (2009), in the United States at David Kordansky Gallery in Los Angeles, which was also the gallery’s inaugural show.
In the Frogtown district of Los Angeles, his studio complex occupies four single-story industrial buildings along the Los Angeles River. Donald and Mera Rubell, art collectors from Miami, bought several of his works in 2006. His large plaster Baby was included in the Whitney Biennial in 2010, and in 2011 L’Homme Pressé, a tall bronze figure of a walking man, was installed in front of Palazzo Grassi on the Grand Canal in Venice during the Biennale. In 2022, he collaborated with Brad Pitt and Nick Cave for an exhibit at the Sara Hildén Art Museum in Tampere, Finland entitled We.