Robert Therrien in San Francisco

21 March - 11 May 2019

Gagosian Gallery, San Francisco.


Gagosian is pleased to present new works by Robert Therrien. This is his first solo exhibition in San Francisco in more than twenty years.

Central to Therrien’s process is the repetition and refinement of found and invented forms. As he translates seemingly simple subjects from two to three dimensions or from small to large and back again, familiar images become oddly cryptic—like ambiguous linguistic units whose meanings shift depending on their placement and orientation. Entirely new motifs emerge from this process: renderings of a chapel evolve into an oilcan; snowmen become clouds; and a stork beak is echoed in the bent tip of a witch hat.

Attesting to Therrien’s interest in cartoons and animation (especially that of Max Fleischer), new works depict puffy cloud-like forms resembling smoke signals or thought bubbles. Therrien leaves the symbols’ meaning unclear, exploring their formal qualities instead, so that some clouds appear completely flat, like decals, and others more voluminous. For No title (black cloud mirror) (2016), he painted his iconic black cloud form on the back of a mirror after sanding away some of the silver to create an antique-looking surface. The mirror thus becomes an almost alchemical environment, as the viewer’s reflection coalesces with both the metallic haze and the black cloud within it. Therrien’s only other mirror work is from the 1980s and depicts a snowman: the cloud simply turned ninety degrees. The progressions in his fine-tuned symbolic vocabulary are epitomized further by a series of four wall reliefs—cutouts of a ranch house, a chapel, a pitcher, and a barn—hanging in silhouette.

Robert Therrien, No title (hands and tambourines), 2018 © Robert Therrien/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Josh White


Many of Therrien’s works are manifestations of his continued and in-depth explorations of everyday objects or images. His towers of kitchenware are modeled after the pots, pans, and dishes in his studio kitchen, and his beard sculptures began with his interest in representing Constantin Brancusi’s facial hair. Hanging from a cruciform armature, No title (plaster beard) (1999) simultaneously recalls classical sculpture, religious iconography, and Surrealist techniques of fragmentation and scale distortion. Adding to this sense of fantasy, No title (stork beak) (1999) is a softly lit photographic print that shows a long beak grabbing a white bundle, signaling the Greek myth of the queen Gerana, trying to steal her baby back from the goddess Hera, who had turned her into a stork.

Therrien’s engagement with folklore continues in No title (hands and tambourines) (2018), wherein three tambourines are activated by the inclusion of simply drawn hands on a bright blue ground, and No title (witch hat) (2018), a mysterious black sculpture that echoes the artist’s “bent cone” form from the 1980s. These works capture Therrien’s unique ability to unite geometric abstraction, perspectival illusion, and realism—oscillating freely between genres and cleverly erasing the lines between them.

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