Nathan Mabry is not interested in humor simply for humor's sake, nor is he interested in grabbing headlines. Yet somehow, his absolutely original recombinations and reimaginings of sculptural tropes from tribal, Modernist, Pop, and Enlightenment archetypes consistently achieve both. "Humor is a tool that can deliver complex information," says Mabry. "Public works should elicit a response -- aesthetically, psychologically and philosophically. Also it's worth noting that [my installation] isn't privately commissioned nor is it a one-percent type of public art program -- this is being presented by a contemporary art museum."
Here, Mabry is speaking about his current installation outside the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego's downtown branch -- a large-scale bronze work called "Process Art (Dead Men Don't Make Sculpture)" -- and its ensuing dust-up, reported on by the local Fox News affiliate with more earnest gravitas and civic consternation than the situation warranted. It seems that at least some local residents find the work, well, disturbing. It is a large, Rodin-like seated figure whose hewn musculature signals classical statuary from the base of the pedestal right up until the man's head -- whereupon is perched a surreal monster mask which makes it seem as though a creature is emerging from the cranium. It's not exactly fear and loathing in San Diego, but it is remarkable, hilarious, engaging, and unforgettable -- and it is freaking some people out.
The sculpture is co-owned by MCASD and the Hammer Museum and enjoys a rotating installation schedule between the institutions. Its acquisition back in 2008-09 was a big moment in the artist's career, signaling (or at least coinciding) with a spate of reviews as well as institutional and international interest. After its initial showing at Mabry's main gallery home of Cherry and Martin in Culver City, it was then purchased and subsequently shown in La Jolla in front of the MCASD in 2009. Soon after this move, MCASD apparently got a fair number of threatening phone calls asking for its removal. Later that summer it was moved to the Hammer Museum, where there were no reported complaints; and now it's back in San Diego, but this time at the museum's downtown location. It will be moved in July and reinstalled at the Hammer soon thereafter. The co-ownership means it gets moved up and down the coast, as Mabry considers it, "like a nomadic holy effigy making a procession through SoCal."
There's no question that context changes an audience's response to this particular work -- witness the difference between an inner courtyard, where only deliberate art appreciators will encounter it, and a city sidewalk, where it leaps into the view of every passerby. A few years ago, people in NYC freaked out about some Fernando Botero sculptures installed in the median along Park Ave because the stylized, smoothly chubby figures were technically "nude." And there was the famous backlash against Richard Serra's "Tilted Arc" as its dissection of a NYC plaza was inconvenient for the bustlers. But it's hard to see what is either too adult or especially cumbersome about this work; it employs the language of most conventional of public art -- the heroic monument -- and deviating from that just long enough to be startlingly inventive, skillfully crafted, and really very funny.
Mabry's work, as he has repeatedly asserted, is not about the joke -- it's about attracting the viewer's attention by first setting up and then subverting their expectations. "There are many different types of humor," says Mabry, "farcical, dark, screwball, slapstick, parodying, satirical, irreverent. A lot can happen when you crash different modes of [visual] thought together. You can have a collision, a fusion, or a confrontation -- hopefully all at once -- resulting in a heightened level of experience." So along with humor, a strategy he uses deftly, Mabry also employs dissonance and juxtaposition between and among eras of art history and other ethnocultural paradigms.
Some of Mabry's favorite go-to source materials reference ideas about cultural artifacts, the aesthetics of the "primitive" or tribal, as well as the ritualistic function of objects and figures from non-Western, non-industrial, pre-semantic worldviews. What is intriguing is how Mabry's work succeeds in linking the 20th century styles of minimalist/modernist sculptural memes to their precursors. He does so both in the realm of formalism, but also in terms of the art's function within society -- as precious objects invested in meaning through both labor and exaltation of value. Much of his work has involved conflating the stark geometries of minimalism with either the stylized forms of artifact statuary or the message content of pop culture. Along with these areas of his practice has also emerged the series from which the current sculpture springs -- one in which other kinds of art historical material is first mined, then undermined in an intuitive trial and error meant to highlight correspondences Mabry feels are already there, but need to be better articulated. "My approach to making work has changed and evolved in divergent ways, says Mabry. "It is difficult to claim an exact organic cause and effect, [as] each series of work has its own lessons embedded in it. I look at and research very specific cultural objects. In some ways each series of work is a game board and I move the parts around within a system."
Since 2008, subsequent iterations in the "Process Art" sculptural series have been installed to great acclaim; one, for example, is currently at the Nasher Sculpture Center, where it is nearing the end of its run. This comes on the heels of Mabry's first major solo show in NYC at the impressive Sean Kelly Gallery. He's already planning shows for other venues outside of New York, including a Cherry and Martin show in the coming year.
Given all of Mabry's upper echelon art world approval, perhaps he'd be forgiven for getting a little testy about the way the San Diego local news chose to cover his return to their scene. But Mabry is sanguine, saying, "I would be disappointed if my works didn't get this type of reaction; otherwise, they'd fall into the category of being purely decorative. The news piece is great -- the cliched, scripted dialogue, the editing -- it has real popular culture quality. The random people that are interviewed are classic; I don't think hired actors could've outperformed them. Overall, it could be my favorite press item."
Top Image: "Process Art (Dead Men Don't Make Sculpture)" by Nathan Mabry, 2008, MCASD. Courtesy of Cherry and Martin.
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