Los Angeles County Museum of Art,, Los Angeles, USA
Although one could call Robert Therrien’s sculpture abstract - especially his output before 1991 - it would be better to call it a very oblique form of representation. In the earlier work, familiar things like butterflies, snowmen, and steepled churches underwent a kind of semiotic mutation that took them from common object to simplified form to icon to symbol to archetype, with the sculpture gradually growing more and more generous in terms of the associations it allowed along the way. Representation was replaced by suggestion, and viewers were forced to “respond” to pieces rather than just look at them.
As a result, Therrien’s art has always felt oddly empty. The objects give up their sense of “thingness” and become ciphers which point to a meaning always outside of themselves, either in the mind and memory of an individual viewer, or in some kind of cultural awareness we all share. In his current show of work since 1991, though - the third museum survey in the artist’s career - the space where one is allowed to look for significance in Therrien’s elliptical forms has gotten more and more cramped, the bandwidth of interpretations more and more narrow. Everything in this latest work leads to a discussion of childhood, and, even more narrowly, to childhood as understood from a psychological point of view. The sculplture is still suggestive and it still operates via its viewer’s responses, but now those responses feel suspiciously manipulated.
The last piece one encounters in this exhibition functions as an all too effective “summing up.” It’s an untitled photographic print (1999) about six feet square, which depicts the myth of the stork. A large, phony looking beak reaches into the picture from outside the frame, holding a bundle wrapped in white cloth. Both the baby and its emissary are not visible. What’s in the bundle - childhood - is a mystery, and the creature which delivers it is not altogether benign. Finally, as though adding insult to injury, the whole scene looks obviously staged.
The image isn’t about childhood itself so much as it’s about adult revisions of childhood, but the rest of the show bears out both points of view. Most of the sculpture is tremendously over-sized, as though to position one in the shoes of an infant. More than that, though, all these huge objects are also very disquieting, as though to return one to the traumas of infancy. Massive bowls and saucers (No Title,1999), each about three feet in diameter, form a towering stack the looks like its about to come crashing down. In an installation called Under the Table (1994), a dining room set so big that one can stroll beneath the furniture without stooping stands in for the ominous domination of parental authority. Life-sized beds cast seamlessly in plastic (No Title, 1997) speak to all the terrors the night can hold. They’re joined end to end in a long chain which has then been whipped into a vertigo-inducing spiral coil about fifty feet long. Reproductions of three costume beards (No Title, 1999), each one about fifteen feet high including the wires meant to hook over a masquerading giant’s ears, act as patriarchal surrogates. Their association with Santa Claus shows that at some point someone intended the originals to be comforting to youngsters, but given their size and materiality here -black plastic in one case, plaster in another and sinister strands of stainless steel wire in the third - there’s little comfort to be found anymore.
There is humor to be found, though, and the interplay between amusement and dread is what continues to give the work complexity. It’s the beards that are probably the most complicated pieces in the show insofar as they are copies of what is already an ersatz object. They function like totems for that narrative space in which this work operates as a whole - the fictions of childhood. That includes both those make-believe stories that adults narrate in order to entertain children, and the psychological exegesis that comes with the package. Perhaps the problem with this work is that the sculpture doesn’t succeed in telling both kinds of story simultaneously. Either the fairy tale suffers at the hands of psychoanalysis, or the psychology becomes infantile.