Robert Therrien at Gagosian, Beverly Hills

Robert Therrien might best be considered the Steven Wright of the art world. Starting in the late eighties, Wright delivered a dry conceptual stand up humor, sometimes dark and often twisted. The logic of his one-line jokes was to make you appreciate the absurdity of contemporary life and the impotence of language to describe it. His sets swung the pendulum between wicked word play and verbal surrealism. Which brings us deftly to another, more aesthetic comparison to the sculptures of Robert Therrien. The gigantism of a handful of contemporary sculptors has its roots in the surrealism of Max Ernst, Salvador Dali and most of all Rene Magritte.

Left: Rene Magritte, The Listening Room, 1952, Oil on Canvas, 55cm x 45cm, Menil Collection Houston, TX
Right: Robert Therrien, No title (Folding table and chairs, green), 2008
Painted metal and fabric
Table: 96 x 120 x 120 inches (243.8 x 304.8 x 304.8 cm); 4 chairs: 104 x 64 x 72 inches each (264.1 x 162.6 x 182.9 cm)
Photo by Josh White, Courtesy Gagosian Gallery

The paradigm is clear: Make something recognizable from an everyday experience and enlarge it to monumental proportions. In the couple of decades this approach has given us Jeff Koons’ Balloon Dog and Urs Fischer’s Teddy Bear. It has also given us the corporeal distortions of Ron Muerk and Evan Penny. But while strictly speaking Therrien’s paradigm with plates and bowls and chairs and tables adheres to this conceptual composition, the effect of his sculptures is more nuanced, muted and cerebral. More Mike Nichols than Ernie Kovaks, shall we say.

Robert Therrien, No title (Folding table and chairs, green), 2008
Painted metal and fabric
Table: 96 x 120 x 120 inches (243.8 x 304.8 x 304.8 cm); 4 chairs: 104 x 64 x 72 inches each (264.1 x 162.6 x 182.9 cm)
Photo by Josh White, Courtesy Gagosian Gallery

A new variation of Therrien’s Table and Chairs is on exhibit at Gagosian Beverly Hills. This time the object of affectionate enlargement are four classic folding chairs and an even more iconic folding card table. One chair is open, three are folded. One sits atop the table and the other two lean against the wall. Seen from afar, walking closer and walking under it are all moments of charm and wonder. It’s terribly nice to feel a sense of whimsy, delight and awe in an art gallery and not feel guilty. And no amount of photographic documentation can do the experience justice. They are flat out cool and should be experienced in person. But there’s more there than the gut punch of surprise and impressiveness. There’s an affectionate nostalgia. There’s an admiration of lasting and economical design. And there’s a child-like playfulness to the whole enterprise. The inner child is also summoned when one walks under the table and realizes this is what it must feel like to a toddler. Furthermore the objects are utilitarian and blue collar in origin. This is not a glorification of high design, say a Biedermeier or Eames chair. This tableau is from mid-America, mid-century back porch or, in my recent memory, the street corner domino games of Bushwick, Brooklyn.

Robert Therrien, No title (Folding table and chairs, green), 2008
Painted metal and fabric
Table: 96 x 120 x 120 inches (243.8 x 304.8 x 304.8 cm); 4 chairs: 104 x 64 x 72 inches each (264.1 x 162.6 x 182.9 cm)
Photo by Josh White, Courtesy Gagosian Gallery

Now it must be noted that this fashion of gigantism is brought to us with deep pockets and the expert skills of manufacturers who are able to realize the wacky dreams of these artists. But when the resulting object and experience is truly singular, I find there’s a valuable place for these ambitious fanciful fabrications. They affect us on a corporeal level. Bring it on.

Robert Therrien at Gagosian Beverly Hills through February 20th, 2014

 

-Mario M. Muller, Los Angeles, January 20th, 2014

And for the sheer the charm of Surrealism’s lasting resonance on today’s artistic trajectory I couldn’t resist adding a couple more side by sides.

Left: Max Ernst, The Hat Makes the Man, 1920, Gouache, pencil, oil, and ink on cut-and-pasted printed paper on paper, 13 7/8 x 17 3/4″, Museum of Modern Art, NYC
Right: Robert Therrien, Blue Plates, Recently installed at LACMA, Broad Art Collection

Left: Max Ernst Collage
Right: Ron Mueck, Couple Under an Umbrella

 

also by Mario M. Muller

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