The contemporary art world hosts legions of dummies -- life-sized 3D portraits, that is. From Photorealists Duane Hanson and John de Andrea to Postmodernists like Charles Ray and Maurizio Cattelan, artists have thoroughly explored what might be called a narcissism of the human race.
While it’s certainly not unusual for contemporary artists to indulge in self-regard, down here in New Zealand, the artist Ronnie Van Hout (b. 1962) has made it his sole métier. He has made an edition of 12 small (29-inch-tall) figures of himself, which he calls "End Dolls." In "Who Goes There," his summer-long exhibition at Christchurch City Art Gallery, the artist seals eight of these homunculi, wearing tiny tailored suits, inside a wall-recessed showcase.
The slightly disheveled serial arrangement of the wood-boxed figures (each wearing a cardstock wrist-tag) brings to mind a police-coroner’s provisional lineup of post-shoot-out gangster’s corpses, a suggestion further abetted by red pigment employed to rouge the otherwise bloodless eyelids and lips of the little men. One might imagine a mortician’s makeup kit, employed prior to a macabre photo-op.
Not quite dead, but certainly on his way, is The Thing, Van Hout’s full-scale doppelganger, who wears an arctic survival suit and slumps mournfully on a bench, inside a monumental institutional-green "containment" room. Only by mounting the chamber’s exterior steps and spying through an observation window’s protective glass can one view The Thing and note the all but imperceptible trickle of blood issuing from one of the forlorn figure’s nostrils.
The Thing, which makes homage in its title to film adaptations of John W. Campbell’s arctic horror story, Who Goes There, was conceived during a residency at an Antarctic research base. The Thing is not only the artist’s double but also a literal physical embodiment of social pathology wrought by physical and psychological isolation, daily fare at such outposts.
The show’s dominating work, however, is Ersatz, a life-sized sculpture of the artist, disguised with a beard and ill-fitting toupee, standing with fist raised menacingly and face tilted skyward, apparently cursing at the heavens. Ersatz risks the wrath of god, or tempts natural forces, then, a move that is bound to further complicate the human predicament from which apparently flows the figure’s palpable personal wrath. A pair of knee-high rubber boots and the deep mud they are sunk into further personify the human predicament.
By choosing to populate his tableaus with (for the most part) personal doppelgangers, Van Hout joins a small and exclusive band of sui generis artist-eccentrics. An informal cohort of visual autobiographers who’ve brought us the solipsistic theatrical monstrosities of Lucas Samaras, the inventive self-deprecations of Robert Arneson and the age-mapped corpus of John Coplans.
Just as news wires reliably deliver regular and predictable accounts of human excess from research stations at the bottom of the world, Van Hout can be counted on to bring us all-too-human by-products from the same hemisphere. The artist’s unforgiving gimlet-eyed light shines (with apologies to the ghost of Samuel Beckett), "having no alternative, on nothing new."
Ronnie Van Hout, "Who Goes There," July 4-Oct. 18, 2009, at Christchurch Art Gallery, Worcester Boulevard, Christchurch, New Zealand.
ROGER BOYCE is an artist and writer living in New Zealand.