A predominantly feminine form of adornment becomes, in the hands of sculptor Timothy Horn, an assertive, near-monumental assault on the senses. It’s Act Up’s 1980’s slogan of We’re here. We’re queer. Get used to it! rendered in bejeweled forms that simply will not be ignored or overlooked. They are here. And they’re pretty queer. ENJOY IT.
He began his art career at Australia’s Queensland College of Art, with the idea of majoring in gold- and silversmithing. After a year, he tired of working at miniature scale, and also of the preciousness of the materials allowed in the studio. “I wanted to break out into anything but precious materials – scrunched up tin and plastic were looking really great, in fact. So I transferred to sculpture.”
Jewelry didn’t re-enter the work for 15 years, until a trip to Europe immersed him in Moorish, Andalusian, and Moroccan jewelry, with their great chunks of amber and enameled blues and reds competing for attention. From beneath the élan, a mystical dimension, something protective and powerful, seemed to emerge, in part because of the religious symbols in much of the work, but also because of the big, almost armor-like scale of some of it.
In a few pieces, the Western penchant for youth and vigor came through. A burly 16th-century merman brooch in the Pitti Palace collection in Florence, whose muscles emerge from a massive Baroque pearl, suggested this most strongly. Particularly as Horn waited in an endless ticket line, contemplating a huge poster of the piece. “I stood there looking at the sexy shape, and realized that it could be so easily appropriated into a discussion of late 20th-century gay culture, all rippling muscles and perfect hair and perpetual youth.”
And so Horn’s post-modern riff on jewelry began. It did not take long for the Australian art world to pay attention to Horn’s work in Canberra shows like Cinderella Complex in 2001 and Water Sports in 2002. In Cinderella Complex, the gay man’s search for a prince in a non-fairy tale world where pitfalls are more common than frogs is a constant undertow. In Water Sports a rather more randy dialectic comes into play, with the all-too-powerful pull of sex and pleasure exerting its influence. “In so many ways, gay men have to invent their lives, without role models and how-to manuals. We make mistakes in our 20s and 30s that most people make in their teens. There is drama,” he comments.
Part of Cinderella Complex, A nickel-plated bronze carriage called Bump and Grind, later became the parti for Horn’s best-known work to date: a life-size fairy-tale carriage coated in rock sugar and shellac called Mother-Load. Created for San Francisco’s DeYoung Museum in 2008, the miniature bronze of Horn’s thirties becomes the gorgeous, fully realized, fully energized fantasy of forty-year-old desire: the well-appointed vehicle for prince-getting is ready to roll. And yet the fragility of the sugar, and the inherent suspicion that the whole apparatus will fall apart at the first bump in the road lends a counterweight of poignancy. As Horn commented in an interview about the exhibition, “What we strive for and what we get are two different things.”
His words actually addressed his interest in Alma Spreckels, the rags to riches San Francisco beauty from the wrong side of the tracks who married into a sugar fortune and strove, through excesses of decorative consumption and noble acts like the founding of San Francisco’s Legion of Honor museum, to achieve both love and social acceptance. The latter certainly never happened, and she was labeled until the end a “free-thinking firebrand.” Which was not a compliment in the San Francisco of her day.
But her struggle for love and acceptance is often expressed in two common gay narratives. First, the lovely, gifted wretch who, in spite of deep innate talents, cannot find happiness. Think Edith Piaf and Judy Garland. And the voluptuous, brassy wench who does not seem to care what others think of her conquests and achievements. As in Joan Crawford and Bette Davis.
Horn’s exploration of risk and beauty, pleasure and pain, the real and the artificial, constantly bumps up against these iconic stories --which, gay or straight, have elements of universality. In his restless mastery of very diverse materials, Horn’s blend of both narratives infuses all of his work, and as we look with awe and shock at the monumental jewelry, the seductive and yet lethal rubber jellyfish chandeliers, the meticulously molded Chippendale sconces and mirrors, we know we must find ourselves somewhere on the shifting ground between them.
For more information on Timothy Horn’s work, visit timothyhorn.net, or www.ppowgallery.com.