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by Hunter Drohojowska-Philp
|"Robert Therrien," Feb. 20 to May 7, 2000, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, Ca. 90036.
These days, Robert Therrien's downtown studio could double as a costume shop for giants. For one thing, a 15-foot-tall beard made of stainless steel "hair" is hanging by its earpieces from a metal stand. "I thought the beard was an interesting subject because it's a symbol of the artist," Therrien says, by way of explanation. "At one point, one of the models was Brancusi's beard, but I eliminated it because it was the wrong shape. Now it's closer to Rodin's beard. Didn't all the great artists have beards?"
The beard of steel, as well as ones made of plaster and plastic, joined some 30 other works created since 1992 in the exhibition "Robert Therrien," Feb. 20-May 7, 2000, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Beards are not the only idiosyncratic elements in an exhibition that includes an impossibly elongated hospital bed coiled into a spiral, oversize blue plates stacked to a height of eight feet, and a massive Dutch door opening into a blank wall. The show also features a table and chairs tall enough for adults to stand under without stooping.
LACMA's curator of modern and contemporary art, Lynn Zelevansky, organized the exhibition. "Bob is from a generation in which Conceptualism has had an enormous impact on the production of objects," she says. "There are concepts in the work yet it remains dominantly visual. It's about your body and your perception in relation to these objects, which will work on you physically."
Therrien sees the world from a greater-than-normal height. At 53, he stands more than six feet tall. Smoking one cigarette after another, and wearing a habitual hangdog expression, he trains his blue eyes appraisingly on the curves of the beards in his studio. Therrien is nothing if not precise. Since much of his sculptures' impact is based on enlarged scale and verisimilitude, the execution must be exact.
Objects in Therrien's world take on a life of their own. As in the animated cartoons that have influenced his work, the quotidian is transformed. Works, like the beards, often look as though they were imported from the animated film Fantasia. "I have an attraction to the animated aspect of a cartoon that really factors into the work," Therrien says. "I think cartoons are part of a lot of people's consciousness. Cartoons have really reductive body parts. They are reduced to the simplest forms. I end up with images like that."
In the studio, Therrien opens a storage room door and offers a visitor a view of his collection of magic props and disguises. It is full of rubber noses and plastic ice cubes, parts of toy animals and packaged cotton candy, rubber dolls, fake flowers and an old circus organ. They act as sources of insouciant inspiration.
In fact, comic books were Therrien's earliest introduction to art, as they were for many artists of his generation. He made copies of them from an early age. "I drew from comic books," he says, "and thought that I had a style of sorts."
A Chicago native, Therrien moved at age nine with his family to Palo Alto, Ca. "I always remember thinking that I was some sort of artist, then becoming obsessive about it as a teenager," he recalls. He attended California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland from 1968 to 1969 then decided to pursue photography and transferred to Santa Barbara's Brooks Institute from 1970 to 1972. Once enrolled, he found that he was less interested in making fine photographs than in drawing and making sculpture.
After he graduated with a bachelor's degree in fine art, he went on to graduate school at the University of Southern California. After earning his master's degree, in 1974 he leased a studio for $150 a month and began to hone the evocative wall reliefs and modestly sized sculptures that first attracted critical attention and exhibitions.
"Mostly I stayed in my studio and had a completely normal, quiet work schedule and occasionally sold something to some curious person, enough to keep me going. I was sort of undisturbed during those 10 years. I think it formed strong work habits that I still have, always working at least eight hours, mostly at night."
He labored in relative obscurity until 1985, when he was included in the Whitney Biennial and taken on by the late legendary art dealer Leo Castelli (he is now represented by Gagosian gallery).
In 1991, when he was given a survey exhibition by the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid, curator Margit Rowell described the work as "both déjŕ vu and jamais vu." She referred to his scale as "confidential," which nicely described Therrien's output up to that time -- poetically reductive sculptures and paintings of simple but evocative shapes like snowmen, keyholes and church steeples. Around that time, Therrien said, "What I do doesn't translate into a large scale."
Shortly after that, Therrien took a series of photographs of staged tableaux to illustrate The Dream Hospital, a book of poetry by critic John Yau. Some of those photographs inspired the sculpture in the current exhibition. Therrien explains, "His (verbal) imagery pushed the work into the domestic realm a little, with the beds and the plates."
Equally important, the return to photography inspired him to work closer to reality and on a monumental scale. "I started using photography as a tool for figuring out ideas," he says. "As a result, the pieces are more recognizable as real objects than before."
The beards, for example, meld the hyper-reality of a photograph with the improbable scale of a cartoon. "For some reason, I wanted them to be fake beards, the type of beard in a cartoon image," Therrien says. "A beard from animation can have a life of its own, can start walking around. I end up with images like that."
The show travels to SITE Santa Fe, New Mexico (June 17-Sept. 10, 2000), the Houston Contemporary Art Museum (Dec. 16, 2000-Feb. 28, 2001) and the Museo de Arte Contemporaneo Monterrey, Mexico (Mar-June 2001).
HUNTER DROHOJOWSKA-PHILP is completing a biography of Georgia O'Keeffe for Alfred Knopf. She writes regularly about art and design.
Sponsored by AXA Nordstern Art Insurance Corporation.