The Flag Art Foundation is pleased to present On Board the Ships at sea are we on view February 23-May 18, 2019 on its 9th floor. The exhibition situates four artworks in a surreal dialogue that shifts viewers’ perceptions of scale, materiality, and the physical absence of the body. The exhibition presents Robert Therrien’s monumental No title (table and six chairs), 2003, alongside Rachel Whiteread’s Untitled (Pair),1999, a duo of interlocking, cast mortuary slabs, and includes two wall-sized text works by Lawrence Weiner: A Mirror Scratched at the Brief Point Twixt Silver Black Where the Image Turns to Return to Sender, and a newly-created aphorism* (from which the show takes its title) that is the artist’s personal response to the current refugee crisis.
Through the physical and psychological experience of encountering Robert Therrien’s sculpture of familiar domestic objects—a dining room table and chairs towering over ten feet tall—visitors surrender their bearings, succumbing to the nostalgia of childhood. Therrien creates the illusion of traditional wood grain furniture through a trompe-l’œil painting technique that disguises the table’s steel and aluminum construction (weighing over 5,000lbs). Every presentation of this particular work conjures a slightly different narrative; in this exhibition, the six chairs akimbo might call to mind a dinner party that has hastily departed.
Rachel Whiteread’s minimalist, gloss white sculptures Untitled (Pair), 1999, extend Therrien’s interest in materiality and the memory of the body. Sensual, ethereal, and somewhat ambiguous in form, these complementary works recall mortuary slabs, originally designed to display, capture, and drain bodily fluids. Cast from one another in bronze—one slightly concave, one convex—the works (in theory) would interlock and complete the other.
Lawrence Weiner, one of the forerunners of Conceptual art, contributes two iconic wall-sized typographic texts to the exhibition: one on the opening wall, the other on its reverse. A Mirror Scratched at the Brief Point Twixt Silver Black Where the Image Turns to Return to Sender, executed in chrome lettering outlined in black, both reflects and obscures the Therrien and Whiteread sculptures across from it, uniting all three voices in conversation.
Weiner draws subtle distinctions on his monochromatic text-based works, considering some minimalist sculptures and others aphorisms*, including his new work ON BOARD THE SHIPS AT SEA ARE WE. Though the artist’s personal intention for this piece was to be a response to the global refugee crisis, like all his text-based works, it welcomes individual interpretations.
Over the past four decades, Robert Therrien has cultivated an expansive vernacular of forms drawn from memory and the everyday. Seemingly simple subjects—including snowmen, bows, and oilcans—acquire multiple levels of reference and association, while outsized sculptures of stacks of plates, tables and chairs, and beards shift between the ordinary and the surreal. The repetitive perfecting of chosen motifs is central to his work, imbuing objects and images with intentionality and a latent sense of the unattainable.
Born in Chicago, Therrien emerged on the burgeoning Los Angeles art scene in the late 1970s after completing graduate school at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, and studying photography at the Brooks Institute, Santa Barbara, California. At a time when the dominance of Minimalism and Conceptualism was being challenged, Therrien adopted certain formal aspects of these movements, yet allowed his pared-down sculptures and monochrome wall reliefs to take on poetic reference and implied narratives. Like the work of fellow artists John McCracken and Vija Celmins, Therrien’s work found curatorial significance for being uncategorizable, his particular style constituting a submerged realism that subtly explored the human condition.
Therrien was represented by Leo Castelli in New York and Konrad Fischer in Düsseldorf throughout the 1980s and 1990s, during which time his work received increasing international recognition. In 1984 the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, presented the first exhibition of his stand-alone rooms: six re-creations of his Pico Boulevard studio, complete with the artworks therein. The studio would continue to be a subject and conceptual catalyst throughout Therrien’s oeuvre, in which art and domestic life are deeply intertwined. In 1990 he moved to a two-story building that he designed and built according to the layout of the earlier Pico Boulevard studio. This space serves as home, repository, workshop, and gallery, allowing Therrien to reference his past works as well as items from everyday life—taking them from two to three dimensions or from small- to large-scale and back again. His sculptures of oversized pots and pans, for example, are modeled after those in his own kitchen, and his sculptures of oilcans evolve from earlier renderings of a chapel, its steeple transformed into a long conical spout.
In 1991 the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid, presented a survey of Therrien’s work since 1969, revealing the evolution of many of his motifs as they vacillate between the familiar and the abstract. The exhibition included a sculpture comprised of three worn white cabinets, which simultaneously echoes the seriality of minimalist sculpture and the intimate tactility and history of found objects. These same cabinets were included in Documenta IX (1992), two years before Therrien presented his first gigantic table and chairs at in SITE94, San Diego (1994).
In the early 2000s, Therrien continued to reinvent his unique vocabulary, revealing influences including Surrealism, early Hollywood cartoons, childhood myths, and period-specific design. Survey exhibitions at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (2011), the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York (2013), and Parasol unit, London (2016), revealed Therrien’s investigations of what he calls “figure-ground play,” wherein an image can evoke many things at once or seem to advance and retreat simultaneously. These chromatic and perspectival effects were expanded in his later room works, in which objects and spaces are reduced not in form but through Therrien’s choice of materials, monochromatic palettes, and presentation of either crowded or eerily sparse interiors.
At the Contemporary Austin (2015) and Gagosian’s West 24th Street location in New York (2017), Therrien exhibited single, meticulously constructed rooms, evolving from the earlier studio rooms. Transparent Room (2010) is a structure made of found factory windows and filled with hundreds of sourced or made plastic and glass objects, while No title (room, panic doors) (2013–14) presents a hallway painted in institutional light blue, with panic doors at one end and a fluorescent fixture on the ceiling. These works evolved out of the earlier Red Room (2000–07), in which nearly one thousand red objects (both found and made) are carefully arranged in a room that can be seen through a white Dutch door. Now held in the Tate collection, Red Room was created over a seven-year period in a small closet under the stairs in Therrien’s studio.
Therrien’s drawings, unique and editioned book projects, and Polaroids have been the focus of exhibitions at the Kunstmuseum Basel (2008) and Denver Art Museum (2016). Displaying the uncanny sense of humor behind many of his inventions, the drawings feature motifs such as heads with halos, fork-tailed red devils, gallows, walking feet, and black clouds. Usually positioned at the center of the page and shown in silhouette, these depictions are made using various combinations of customized stencils, bleach, Japan Colors, and dye—serving as complex works in and of themselves, as well as foundations for sculptures and symbologies to come.