Pakistani-born artist Huma Bhabha presents an ambitious new body of work in London.
The exhibition at Stephen Friedman Gallery continues Huma Bhabha’s investigation into figuration, taking inspiration from a wide spectrum of references that cross genres, time, art history, continents and popular culture.
Sculptures by Karachi-born, New York-based artist Huma Bhabha have previously presented raw materials that made the physical process of fabrication a subject. These works foreshadowed the bronze casting process but stopped at a provisional point where lumps of wood and Styrofoam protruded from masses of clay. For her latest show, running until 28 January 2017 at London’s Stephen Friedman Gallery, Bhabha takes a relaxed approach to materials and shows a collection of works that are closer to totems or even portrait busts than to assemblages.
Revising Modernist Collage
The exhibition is situated in Stephen Friedman’s two gallery spaces separated by London’s Old Burlington Street, a suave conduit of civility. It seems an irreconcilable alien divide between the parts of the show, and yet Bhabha’s work is much less primal than its raw surfaces might imply. At first glance, the works evoke an archaic spirit world, but just below this surface is the sterility of modern materials and their synthesis deployed to make images that are very direct.
Bhabha acknowledges a debt to Robert Rauschenberg. Her sculpture, Special Guest Star (2016) is perhaps intended to welcome Rauschenberg’s iconic sculpture incorporating a stuffed goat girdled by a car tire, entitled Monogram (1955-59), to his retrospective at London’s Tate Modern (29 November 2016 – 2 April 2017). The gallery, at the point where Bhabha’s sculpture is seen, shares the ground plane with the street and this evokes the low platform on casters, covered in collage material, which supports the Rauschenberg work.
Special Guest Star is the figure of a man drawn with a schematic deployment of eclectic elements; the ensemble includes real horns, like the goat, but here they twist against two further protrusions. It is a brutal take on modernist distortion. Where Rauschenberg’s work stands full-square with a bawdy insolence, this is a diagram, a basic plan for a figure caught from falling backwards by a slender metal rod, the angle suggesting discomfort or even torture. It is the essence of a person only barely materialised, studded with nasty cast offs that lack the romance of objet trouvé.
Historically, collage sensually liberated new possibilities from the palate of the waste materials oozing from mechanical reproduction. In Bhabha’s work, the profile of surplus is changed. It reminds viewers that the exciting savagery appropriated in the art of Western Cubists and Surrealists from ethnographic artifacts is now the vibrant cultural history of great nations – and that the acquisitive habits of colonials were not usually noble acts.
Bhabha, like Rauschenberg, is an influence on emerging artists looking for ways to evoke the kaleidoscopic experience of the contemporary world. Rauschenberg celebrated the riches becoming available through popular media. Bhabha alludes to the disenfranchisement of supernatural energies that she reanimates with bricolage.
This is powerfully expressed in four large-scale coloured photographs, all Untitled (2016). The photographs are images of nothing, waste ground, trenches, pools of water. These have been substantially obliterated by further painted and collaged material, making the original pictures hard to read. The upper images are imposed on the photographs. They are not magical transformations, like Pablo Picasso seeing the head of a bull in a bicycle seat, but strenuous superimpositions, a personage extracted from the sub-image by force of will. A mystic or archaic power has been let into the gallery and it occupies the four big photographs in their elegant frames with fervent over-painting.
Figure Sculpture in the Post-human Era
In the Shadow of the Sun and Castle of the Daughter (2016) are two female figures, one little smaller than life size, the other towering with a swollen head. Both stare from the raised vantage point of the gallery across Old Burlington Street. They look like extraterrestrials who visited the earth to share their technology, facilitating the construction of prehistoric landmarks such as the Pyramids of Giza and Sacsayhuamán. These female aliens are precision sliced horizontally, their legs hewn from tobacco coloured cork. Their torsos have the sheen of an alloy, but this turns out to be Styrofoam and polystyrene dusted with spray and marked with oil stick.
Both figures proudly display their genitals giving them a rude Paleolithic look. This is cartooned up with playfully embellished buttocks and bikini tops. If these were real people you would call them wholesome and unselfconscious. Bhabha says that her work is a unique hybrid language, one that is related to other older and larger languages, adding:
While my work relates very much to the history of sacred art, it has no religious significance and the humor in it is very contemporary.
Behind the two full-length figures, House of Traps (2016) is in the form of a portrait bust. It appears to have had some trouble with a pair of headphones. A worn band rests on the head while the ears are clumpy blocks of dark cork. Both sides of the head feature a roughly formed face. On one side the head is elongated, caressed either between two hands or folded between labia. On the other side is a visage like the Star Child Skull from Chihuahua, Mexico, another artifact that purports to suggest the intervention of aliens in early human history.
Bhabha has commented, speaking to Art in America:
My core subject revolves around the figurative, and whenever I’m stuck I look for references all over the place. I’ll look at books on Greek or African art, or on Rembrandt, or I’ll notice a photograph in the newspaper of two people sitting a certain way. There is no hierarchy in my looking; the question is only whether something fits, whether it solves the problem at hand.
Where Bhabha’s Modernist precedents drew on the potential of physical detritus, she extends this to the waste of cultural accumulation that oozes from overloaded media in a frenzy of circulation. Despite Bhabha citing a plethora of influences, she has not mentioned the sculptural figures of Elisabeth Frink who seem pertinent in connection with these current works. Frink operated in a figurative idiom beyond the dominant dialogues of the transatlantic art of her time, just as Bhabha’s approach goes beyond the anodyne materials of some recent art and her directness steers away from conceptual prevarication. The white faces of Frink’s Riace Figures of 1986 hold the same gaze as Bhabha’s women.
Frink’s work communed with both humanitarian politics and the archaic, the Riace works evoking ancient Greek mercenaries. They were molded together in raw plaster over constructed wooden armatures and Frink would carve back into this material too. Such figures are always hard to accommodate in the mainstream discourses of art. The stoic gaze of Bhabha’s figures, looking out on old London, repeat the often echoed questions first asked by Jewish scholar Hillel the Elder:
If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, when?
The figures stand as sentinels awaiting social integration. Perhaps the antediluvian quality only serves to tell that it tends to be a very long wait.
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