Fresh from his mid-career retrospective What Went Down at Modern Art Oxford, which traveled to the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, Museum Abteiberg, Munchengladbach, and the Centre International d’Art et du Paysage, l’Ile de Vassivière, British-born sculptor Thomas Houseago attracted much popular attention with his large scale Public Art Fund commission, Masks (Pentagon), 2015, which was specifically designed for Rockefeller Plaza in Midtown Manhattan. While his 2015 public artwork ranged from 14 ½ to 16 ½ feet, Midnight Mask III demonstrates the same urgent sense of vitality, a result of Houseago’s intensely physical process and the work’s legible facture.
To create Midnight Mask III, Houseago began by constructing an armature of iron rods, which he then draped with plaster-soaked hemp and added more molded plaster forms. Known as Tuf-Cal, his material of choice is a super strong plaster that allows the artist to build up the weighty strata of his bas-relief. Houseago has forcefully worked the head’s left side, leaving the right to appear as if turning away from the viewer. The cavernous eyes, with gouged sockets, are capped with expressive brows. The heavily worked mouth appears silenced with layers of plaster. The distorted visage juts out from the wall, alternately monstrous and vulnerable. While the title references masks, Houseago has explained his work as an exploration of human expression: “I am mostly just trying to figure out what a face is and looks like and how you try to represent that because as far as I’m concerned, photos tend to do a pretty strange job. I’ve found often that when the heads are the most ‘mask-like’ they end up seeming the most realistic or true to reality….” (M. Stanley and T. Houseago, “In Conversation,” Thomas Houseago: What Went Down, ed.s M. Stanley and P. Luckraft, Oxford, 2003, p. 23). Houseago’s visceral, vulnerable works which revel in showing the artist’s hand are in the vanguard of contemporary reactions against the sometimes slick and often emotionless industrialized modernity, despite its deep roots in a wide range of art-historical references from that of Rodin to Picasso.