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Having produced such show-stopping installations as Truck Corridor (2004) (a Mack truck squeezed into a gallery space) and Shangri-La (2002) (an inverted air-balloon installed in the Sydney Opera House), James Angus’s touring retrospective was not as spectacular as anticipated yet it showcased work that was equally arresting. The central piece of the exhibition was Bugatti Type 35 (2006)—a 1920s racing car which, through the use of 3D imaging software, was replicated with a 30 degree tilt and installed on its side. Like most of Angus’s work it offered an intensity around the act of looking that overwhelmed the actual physical presence of the object. In fact, despite Angus’s consistently intelligent approach to the study of various physical forms, in this exhibition one felt a preference towards the optical experience over the physical or spatial—as if each object was detached from the exhibition space and viewed through the computer screen in which it originated.
Upon entering Brisbane’s Institute of Modern Art, the viewer first encountered Manta Ray (2002), a white fibreglass manta ray cut in a welcoming pose and resting on a white plinth. Perhaps the work could be about the transformation of the marine animal into a passive, museological object; an object that serves only to reflect what the viewer wants out of it. The uncertainty surrounding the metaphorical function of Angus’s objects was repeated throughout the exhibition to the point that one questioned the validity of reading his work in this conventional fashion. Could such an encounter with figurative sculpture be without metaphorical or allegorical intention? Whilst artistic intention can only be assumed, walking through the exhibition I found myself on a number of occasions being lost in the kind of intense viewing experience that is usually reserved for formalist and craft-based art.
Although there is an emphasis on figuration and selection in Angus’s works, their function as critical statements or metaphors does not appear to be the artist’s primary concern. The industrialised craft of his work, like most craft, creates a greater interest in what the object is rather than what it represents. Whilst Angus shares similarities with Charles Ray’s attention to detail and Maurizio Cattelan’s context-specific trickery, the exhibition showcased a more literal approach to figurative sculpture. Like Ray’s fascination for the formalist sculptures of Anthony Caro, Angus displays an interest in abstracting the foundational components of various structures, from industrial forms such as buildings or cars to the more natural phenomena of animal design. However, whilst Ray produces dichotomous relationships that demonstrate his predilection for the uncanny, Angus produces a literal focus on the sculpture’s construction, without the transcendence of a Ray or Cattelan work. Because of the apparently autogenous quality of the objects, the exhibition provided engagements that were free of overt critical directives.
Gorilla, Gorilla, Gorilla (2005) was possibly the smallest sculpture in the exhibition yet it was compelling beyond its means. It comprised a gorilla’s skull rendered in wood veneer parquetry, having been modelled on an actual male gorilla skull through the use of a 3D scanner—a device Angus often employs. The iconic front of the skull, the decorative sensibility of the wood veneer and the intricate cavities at the back combined to create an artwork that functioned rhetorically. ‘Gorilla, gorilla, gorilla’ became a mantra that mimicked how one viewed it; walking around and around on a trajectory, searching for a meaning beyond the looking. Also, in selecting a gorilla over a human or chimpanzee skull, Angus avoided that well-worn tendency to use such motifs as ironic references to humanity—references that would be out of place in the artist’s detached oeuvre.
Whilst Angus is obviously informed by historical discourses encompassing architecture, video-art, modernist sculpture, craft and critical theory, the objects themselves did not appear to say anything about these concerns. Rather than setting a critical agenda, it seems that any distinct critical motives are cast aside by Angus during the process of making; allowing the work to function within a broad cultural vernacular where the viewer is in the driver’s seat. Although his sculptures are sometimes historicist in appearance, the exhibition complicated the line between spectacle and study, evoking a sensibility that was, without contradiction, as futuristic as it was historical.