Unlikely Classicists: Four Artists Grapple with the Weight of Antiquity

Installation view of "CLASSICS," on exhibit at London's Carlson Gallery
(Courtesy Massimo De Carlo/Carlson Gallery - Milan, London)

Classicism was born during the Renaissance out of one of the most enduring myths in Western art history: the idea that the Greco-Roman era was a golden age for the arts, its visual lexicon a model for artists to aspire to and compete with. Modern and postmodern artists have repeatedly tried to sever this umbilical cord, but the antique legacy dies hard. It is easy to see why. Few sculptures capture the human condition as powerfully as the "Laocoön," forever fighting the serpents of destiny in the Vatican Museum. Hellenist work is so appealing that it has often been idealized.

"Classics" (the actual title is printed backwards, significantly, in promotional materials), currently on at London's Carlson Gallery, examines the legacy of this heritage through the work of an unlikely foursome of classicists: Giorgio de Chirico, Thomas Houseago, Philip Guston, and Steven Claydon. Although one might expect very little from an exhibition whose accompanying text's epigraph is the first line from the "Classicism" article on Wikipedia, the show offers a fascinating insight into the artists' grapple with the weight of tradition. De Chirico's 1928 "Lotta di gladiatori" is an apt metaphor for this struggle. Two faceless figures that could have just stepped down from marble pedestals wrestle under the impassible gaze of their faceless master. One pugilist is significantly shorter and weaker — could he be the artist? De Chirico wasn't afraid to share his own shortcomings: in the 1954 self-portrait "Autoritratto con tavolozza," also in the exhibition, he pictures himself as a weary old man, dressed like an 18th-century court painter, looking at the mirror while an antique plaster points somewhere high above him, unreachable.   

Houseago's "Untitled (Boy on a Plinth)" (2009) is also crippled by its own failures. Knees bent, as if trying to skitter down its soapbox plinth, the ghostly sculpture appears ensnared in conflicting aspirations to monumentality and disappearance. In Houseago's "Untitled" (2008), the figure has already reached the fragment stage. The large bronze head of an ancient warrior or unknown deity seems to rest on a wooden support. It appears in transit, deep down in the museum's belly, waiting for storage or display. Claydon's wall painting "The Supple Bulk of Stuff (Indivisible Substrate)" (2009) reinforces the exhibition's solid coherence. The stamp-like picture of a man, looking down at missing bits on his own body, is obsessively repeated on the first gallery's walls at regular intervals. Claydon's thwarted figure echoes classicism itself, a Sisyphean endeavor, fraught with the impossibility of its own completion.

But the show isn't all creative angst. The four Guston oils on paper, realized shortly after the artist made his return to figurative painting and escaped to Italy, are vibrant and downright funny in their lurid toilet-roll hue. In "Untitled" (1971), a single foot, as one finds in collections of antique fragments, is simplified to the extreme, like the childish drawing of a boot. His "Tuscan City" (1976) is a rake-like skyline, his wood blocks ("Untitled," 1971) makeshift plinths. And yet there's a real sense of wonder in these works, something of the awe Guston might have felt in Rome, in front of the real deal. Claydon's "Pitted Trophima" (2011) is a mock antique bust, face covered by a Venetian Bauta mask, hair and beard like a Mesopotamian priest, the whole perched on an empty plastic barrel formerly used for the transport of olives. The piece is a potpourri of glorious Mediterranean history; Claydon nurtures a contemporary Frankenstein pieced together from stuff of legend. "Classics"'s marketing sells the show short (and let's not mention the pointlessly back-to-front title à la Leonardo: if anything Da Vinci was an anti-classicist). Thankfully, the art is too strong to be undermined by such fripperies. 

See a selection of photos from "Classics" by clicking here or on view slide show