Norwich welcomes Thomas Houseago body of work

A huge figure lately spied on a Sainsbury Centre lawn has now brought along the rest of his dysfunctional family. A show of fabulous and formidable forms by sculptor Thomas Houseago is, says IAN COLLINS, a powerful treat.

For most of this year a strange conversation — almost a courtship — has been taking place between monumental bronze figures on the lawn in front of the Sainsbury Centre restaurant.

The repose of a classic reclining female form by Henry Moore in this leafiest corner of the University of East Anglia campus has been shaken and stirred by the arrival of a towering male presence.

A work of mighty machismo by fellow Yorkshireman Thomas Houseago is made all the odder by its title: Hermaphrodite.

Paradox is very much part of this sculptor's practice, as are sly references to the art historical past – in this case the robotic models of Eduardo Paolozzi – to suit his deeply personal purpose.

The Sainsbury Centre is hosting a whole Houseago show called Where the Wild Things Are. It's as if that first intrusive figure has now brought in the rest of his dysfunctional family, and a few of their pets and fetishes, to unsettle the serenity of the resident Moore assembly.

Turning 40 this year, Thomas Houseago is now in the forefront of a wave of artists turning to – and firmly twisting – the lately scorned tradition of figurative art, for an invigorating response to the 21st century. His sculptures are powerful and poignant – expressing both the vigour and vulnerability of the male figure, qualities which here combine in a very intentional, and infinitely touching, awkwardness.

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His own story has been no less smooth. Born in Leeds, training in London and Amsterdam, and then working in Brussels, he seemed to be getting nowhere until moving to Los Angeles to give his sculpture one last chance.

That final fling led to swift success, and, since a first solo show in LA in 2006, he has fast been gaining a global reputation – with acclaim in his home country (and a show at top London commercial gallery Hauser and Wirth due in October). The art world is full of irony.

With recent works now spreading outside and inside the west end of our landmark Norwich building, and with another looming large beside the gallery reception and mingling happily with the largely figurative Robert and Lisa Sainsbury collection, Houseago has the feel of an authentic modern master.

His influences range from Cubism and Futurism to the masks of African art and Darth Vader. He clearly loves Picasso, Giacometti and Brancusi – and his Rattlesnake Figure is a moving tribute to Jacob Epstein (and Picasso) which then moves on to a personality all of its own.

Lucian Freud once said that he had been too busy to be influenced by anyone. Such silly conceit belies the human fact that we can be profoundly affected by everyone and anything, even if we don't realise it – and Houseago happily revels in this multifarious world and a rich creative history.

He uses rough materials such as plaster, clay, wood and hessian, as well as casting in bronze or aluminium. And while Moore figures appear to have emerged perfectly complete, Houseago's forms retain signs of their making – exposed rusty metal rods, indentations of the artist's tools – which they wear like battle scars or medals.

They show the messiness of existence and the sense of a work in progress. Life is, of course, another word for unfinished business.

Where the Wild Things Are is the second exhibition in the Sainsbury Centre's Next Modern series, profiling contemporary art, and the first for a fair while to be dedicated to sculpture. It is altogether a great pointer of where to go.

? Thomas Houseago: Where the Wild Things Are, Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, until January 27, Tues- Sat 10am-5pm, free admission, 01603 593199,