May 7 – June 12, 2021
Pure magic is what I thought when I first encountered Joe Houston’s paintings. This was in 2018, at P·P·O·W’s Armory Show booth. He exhibited VIEW (2018), a three-foot square, stark, Caspar David Friedrich-like depiction of a binocular coin-operated tower viewer standing like a Rückenfigur in front of a low stone wall and against a light green background, and HOLD (2017), an outstretched arm and hand gripping a chirping songbird against a blue sky. These were the artist’s first exhibited works in 22 years and their conceptual realism married to rigorous oil painting technique astounded. Now, Houston has brought his considerable painterly powers to bear in 17 intimately-sized canvases in the small rear room at P·P·O·W’s new downtown space. They are in three different dimensions and are set in artist-designed wooden frames. He has traded the clarity and space of his contemporary vernacular take on German Romantic and Biedermeier works for a Hilla and Bernd Becher-like serial concentration on a singular motif: close-up views of the pelvic regions of Greco-Roman stone statues of men. The layered title of the show, “RUINS,” is immediately apparent in the fragmentary nature of the cocks and balls that fill each of his canvases, or in one case, the blasted crater where the genitalia once sat. But it is equally a rumination on male fragility, emasculation, helplessness in COVID, post-Renaissance priggish iconoclasm, and poor restoration techniques. Ultimately, the work signals a cautionary tale about societal and political hubris, forming a finely-weighted provocation.
Each meticulously crafted crotch shot is painted with oil on linen and mounted on wood. There are two seven-and-a-half by six-and-three-quarters inch works titled Damage I (2019) and Damage II (2021), 13 ten-and-five-eighths by nine-and-five-eighths pictures each given the title Ruin, and two 22 by 20 inch images, Colossus III (2020) and Colossus IV (2021), the latter sometimes painted to the scale of the referenced statue. The small and medium works are floated in flat, broad white wood frames flush with the canvas surfaces. The mutilations of the sculpted genitalia range from slight to extreme. The actual materials of the torsos are marble or porphyry or basalt, sometimes with visible fills and repairs from later restorations. All were sourced from photos, as documented on the artist’s Instagram page. In Damage II, drawn from Eros and Satyr images, the penis is absent, just a gaping hole. In only one instance is a source image repeated: Colossus IV and Ruin IV (2019). With its Hellenistic brawn, expressive pubic hair, and dark dowel hole where the penis once protruded, upon which a fig leaf would have been added centuries later by the Vatican, this one feels animated, like a gorgon head with writhing snake hair. Castration anxiety lurks in that story, too. Some of the smaller panels, such as Ruin XV (2020), feel freshly made, with crusty edges of paint spreading off the panel borders like cake icing, in juxtaposition to the clean lines of the frames. Ruin XXI (2021), notable for its reddish purple porphyry stone, is somewhat more Impressionistically painted, looser with flecks of light in the pubis and testicles, a response to this singularly hard and difficult-to-work Egyptian rock that Roman artists were able to bring to a shine.
This may seem a surprising departure for this Kansas City-based artist who for many years was the advisor to and curator of the Hallmark Art Collection, and who had given up painting for decades after two shows at P·P·O·W’s Lower East Side space in 1986 and 1993: small pictures of mundane objects with titles that read as unsubtle invectives or bland descriptors such as the hook block of a crane dangling in the air titled LIFT (1993); yellow rubber dish gloves titled PROTECT (1993); a folded US flag on grass titled MOURN (1993). They felt political and deliberately impersonal. Houston has published widely and curated a number of exhibitions, most recently a survey of 1960s and 1970s Op and Kinetic Art at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art. The artist’s meticulous paintings of present or absent marmoreal members may seem a far cry from his curatorial work on geometric abstraction and post-digital painting, but they bear a visual veracity that productively pushes against their evident rigor and repetition and engage in a trompe-l’oeil dialogue not with reality but with photography.
Since Géricault’s despoliation of the previously sacrosanct musculated white male European body in The Raft of the Medusa (1818–19), and the rise of the female nude in academic and avant-garde Western painting through the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the sight of male frontal nudity has retained a sheepish charge. Think of Jasper Johns including a cast of a penis in Target with Plaster Casts at MoMA (1955), Ellen Altfest’s The Penis (2006) (her deadpan send-up of Courbet’s The Origin of the World), or the various male genitals on bright and pedestrian display in the current Alice Neel show at the Metropolitan. Like Houston’s works, and the Roman sculptures they are based on, desire feels secondary. And the penile puncta in these images stubbornly resist identification. I offered it as a challenge to a friend, Dr. Michelle Berenfeld, John A. McCarthy Associate Professor of Classics at Pitzer College, and she identified a couple of them by type (a Roman Apollo Kitharadoros of Hellenistic style, a Greek ephebe), but such delightful trivia for art historians is not Houston’s game. He is after a deeper range of reference. The Roman scholar Frank Bourne was known to close his classes on Roman history at Princeton with, “In the age of Pax Americana, there's no more important lesson we can teach young Americans than the rise and decline of the Pax Romana … De nobis fabula narratur: Their story is our story.”1 Joe Houston’s “Ruins,” a series begun in the second term of the Trump administration, seem reflective and remain predictive.
- T.R. Reid, “The Making of an Empire,” National Geographic, July 1997, 12.