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On View at the Gatehouse Gallery and Grounds of the Betty and Edward Marcus Sculpture Park at Laguna Gloria
Lionel Maunz (American, born 1976 in Washington, D.C.) renders exquisitely crafted, fragmented assemblages of figures and architecture that convey oppositional readings, ranging from beautiful and repulsive to universal and personal. The work begins, for the artist, with “an impulse to degrade and ruin” driven by his unique aesthetic.1 This ethos falls within a centuries-old Gothic lineage of horror, agony, and the grotesque originating in the classical art inspired by religious fervor and in the narratives of Christianity—what the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard referred to as “demonic despair”2—a lineage that continues through the present day. Characterized by sentiments of fear, violence, and pain; representations of fragmented, mutated, or distorted bodies; the appearance of monsters, phantasmagoria, and demons; and otherwise disquieting mise-en-scènes, this style represents a counter-impulse to traditionalism, classicism, and idealism. With an enduring “capacity for inspiring genuine delight as well as provoking disquiet,”3 examples in Western cultures range from the satyrs in Greco-Roman mythology to early medieval church gargoyles to Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights (1490–1500), Peter Paul Rubens’s two versions of The Massacre of the Innocents (c. 1611–1612 and c. 1638), William Blake’s Nebuchadnezzar (c. 1795–1805), and Goya’s The Disasters of War (1810–1820) and Black Paintings (1820–1823), in which strange creatures, disembodied heads, and diabolical tableaux meet masterful artistic skill and poignant existential resonance. In more secular terms than their predecessors, postwar and contemporary artists such as Marina Abramović, Francis Bacon, Matthew Barney, John Bock, Louise Bourgeois, Tracey Emin, Mike Kelley, and Paul McCarthy, among many, have made the beautiful and the terrible their vessel of choice. These alternately tragic, comic, sublime, and horrific works reflect artists grappling with dark, suppressed, and frequently taboo emotions and behavior inherent in the contested spaces of religion, culture, and human nature. For the viewer, the challenging, visceral, and sometimes disturbing tenor of this art can provoke suppressed sentiments that might repel or, in contrast, catalyze a deeper understanding of the most arduous aspects of our existence.
Historical references aside, Maunz’s work is refined, consistent, and impeccably rendered. Although trained as a painter at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, the artist works primarily in iron, steel, and concrete sculpture, employing casting as an integral part of his methodology, as well as delicate drawings in graphite on paper. His use of classical figurative techniques with a honed attention to aesthetics of form and surface—such as in the velvety finished concrete or waxed iron patina surfaces of his sculptures—reflect an embrace of the making of objects that seems refreshingly out of step with the digital era. Concurrently, the work’s traditional themes of family, figuration, and architecture, combined with its expressive Baroque sensibility, impart both clarity of artistic vision and resistance to the broad thematic and stylistic mash-ups endemic in today’s younger generations of artists.
In a focused manner, Maunz’s work mines the history of classical art, architectural structures abstracted from memory, particular aspects of the artist’s past, and family and childhood psychological theory. By example, a 2014 exhibition by the artist engaged the Italian Renaissance painter Paolo Uccello’s fifteenth-century fresco Deluge, and, subsequently, in a 2016 exhibition, Maunz referenced the controversial mid-twentieth-century primate research of Harry Harlow and psychological family theories of R. D. Laing. While such concepts have universal relevance, they also embody an essential autobiographical disposition for Maunz, particularly in relation to family and childhood. Raised in Montana, the artist has drawn from his early experience with theosophy and organized religion to yield an undercurrent that flows throughout everything he creates. In this sense, the work is deeply personal, representing raw but calculated intimate expression. The resulting sculptures appear both fragile and aggressive: iron casts of horse or pig body parts, disembodied heads, children, mechanical instruments, and restraining straps sit atop minimalist cast concrete blocks in small clusters and assemblages. In other works, perfectly smooth geometric sculptural forms are recessed into cavernous rectangles inside concrete bases. Maunz’s finely detailed graphite drawings illuminate elements seen in the sculptural works, and are frequently exhibited together to create a holistic concept.
For The Contemporary Austin, Maunz presents Discovery of Honey / Work of the Family, an exhibition consisting of primarily new works in the Gatehouse Gallery and a newly commissioned sculpture on the lower grounds of the Betty and Edward Marcus Sculpture Park at Laguna Gloria. Discovery of Honey / Work of the Family marries the artist’s interest in the family unit with the metaphor of the beehive and honey, taking its title in part from the Florentine Renaissance painter Piero di Cosimo’s painting The Discovery of Honey by Bacchus (c. 1499). In the painting and in this exhibition, the honey-hive images serve as metaphorical symbols of seduction and love, but concurrently, and more darkly, also of entrapment, society, and the dangers of collective consciousness. Returning to the work’s autobiographical foundation, the artist discusses this as a reference to the organizing principle of the community in which he was raised and an exulted “distillation of cruelty, a crystallization of coercion and force.”4 Three new sculptures—New Mother / You Must Increase As I Must Decrease, Discovery of Honey, and Annunciation, all 2017—engulf the exhibition floor, architectural structures incorporating impressions of figures in various iterations combined with interpretations of medical braces. Both Discovery of Honey and Annunciation feature elements of suspension, an aspect that operates as an aesthetic element quite literally separating one component of the work from another, but also inferring an existentially unfillable void within. As Maunz states, these downward-descending suspended elements reflect a deep ambivalence characterized by “irreconcilable tensions of internal voids and conflicts.”5 Two drawings, Vertical Chamber, 2016, and Black River, 2017, flank the sculptures, the former detailing a 1950s primate isolation chamber designed by Harlow while the latter depicts a bulbous and strange medical model for childbirth. On the lower grounds of the park, a new, stainless steel sculpture, Lick Your Throat and Cut Your Feet, 2017, a fragmented assemblage of body parts and abstracted, fleshly forms, emerges from a secluded location in the trees near Lake Austin. Devoid of resolution or conclusion, Maunz’s work instead catalyzes intentionally unresolved openings—perhaps wounds, even—around difficult notions. Alternately macabre and poignant, his work lays bare the fact that, even in its cruelty, the world can be beautiful.
1 Artist in email correspondence with the author, February 2, 2017.
2 Quoted in James R. Scrimgeour, “‘The Great Example of Horror & Agony’: A comparison of Søren Kierkegaard’s Demoniacally Despairing Individual with William Blake’s Spectre of Urthona,” Scandinavian Studies 47, no. 1 (1975): 36–41. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40917493
3 Robert Storr, Disparities and Deformations: Our Grotesque (SITE Santa Fe, 2004), 13.
4 Artist in email correspondence with the author, February 2, 2017.
5 Artist in conversation with the author, January 27, 2017.
This exhibition is organized by Heather Pesanti, Senior Curator, with text also by Pesanti.
Lionel Maunz Exhibition Support: Edward and Betty Marcus Foundation