Transgressive Fantasia:
Gregory de la Haba's Between Nothingness and Paradise

a catalogue essay by Richard Speer

Gallery Privée (Sag Harbor, New York)
at Bridge Art Fair Wynwood, Miami, Florida


            There are few buttons that Gregory de la Haba’s work does not push, few boundaries it does not transgress, few sacred cows—and fewer horses—it does not upend.  The New York City-based artist and provocateur ’s wild hell-ride of a sculptural installation, Between Nothingness and Paradise, is a sprawling critique of politics, gender, and sexuality, cloaked in the mantle of old-school artistic swagger.  To behold the dramatically posed, erotically assertive taxidermic equines at the heart of this formally and conceptually formidable installation is to be awed, attracted, repulsed, intrigued, piqued, and struck plain dumb.  Samuel Morse’s seminal telegram comes to mind:  “What hath God wrought?”  What, indeed, hath de la Haba wrought?  Showgirls meets National Velvet?  Mr. Ed on Viagra?  Equus Strikes Back?

First of all, the visuals.  Between Nothingness and Paradise (titled after political scientist Gerhart Niemeyer’s book) consists of three horses taxidermized in a manner similar to that which immortalized Roy Rogers’ trusty steed, Trigger.  De la Haba’s black stud rears up on his hind legs to an imposing twelve feet, an oversized phallus of sculpted clay protruding from his loins.  Two female horses—one a filly, one a mare, each appointed with a sculpted pudendum—submit themselves to the stud’s power.  The females wear red sequins, garter belts, and headdresses that would not be out of place in a Las Vegas revue.  Dramatic lighting complements the highly theatrical display.  Surrounding the horses on the gallery walls are photographs, paintings, and other “altered objects,” including painted surfboards from the artist’s Phallic Boards series, as well as Amber Alert and Womb Painting #1, in which, respectively, a young girl and boy stand before the installation’s priapic horse, trying to fathom its mysteries of impending sexuality.

While the sculptures subversively reference Damien Hirst’s and Maurizio Cattelan’s unnaturally preserved menageries, their modus operandi is more carpe noctem than memento mori, in keeping with the incendiary voluptuary be-here-nowness inherent in de la Haba’s personality.  This is a man who does not shy from grand gestures.  Two 15-foot-long “Admobile” trucks appointed with oversized images of his “equus erectus” will trumpet his Bridge show from one end of Miami Beach to the other.  Other gestures:  At the height of the 2008 Presidential primary season, he plastered 5,000 art posters around New York City to highlight the dual specters of sexism and racism haunting Hillary Clinton’s and Barack Obama’s campaigns.  Further:  His artwork has adorned 50’x60’ billboards in midtown Manhattan, and his stunning 16’x30’ painting, The Bacchanalia—a transgressive tour de force complete with orgiastic couples in flagrante delicto—was for years a fixture at Caesar’s Atlantic City.

This penchant for Vegas-scale monumentality dovetails with de la Haba’s artistic and existential temperament.  He is a gambler and a bon vivant, and those orientations feed his work in the studio—a studio that contains a 14-foot-long craps table, which is not there merely as a conversation piece.  The rush that comes with chance and ecstatic experience runs in his bloodline.  His paternal great-grandfather was instrumental in establishing casinos on the island of Puerto Rico.  His grandfather was a habitué of Manhattan’s hippest, heppest, happenin’est nightclubs.  In the late 1990s, de la Haba himself owned a racehorse named Some Irish Legend, who raced to sundry victories at Saratoga and Belmont.  As the artist danced with Lady Luck, he continued a parallel course of more traditional education, earing a degree in Classical Civilizations from Harvard University, studying painting at the Museum School of Fine Arts, Boston, and exploring time-honored principles of picture-making from artist Paul Ingbretson, whose own pedagogical lineage stretches back to the great Neoclassicist Jacques-Louis David.

On the heels of de la Haba’s heady mélange of high life and higher education, it was perhaps inevitable that he would appropriate the racetrack as an aesthetic motif.  To wit, Between Nothingness and Paradise, completed during the historic Presidential election of 2008, suggests parallels between the spectacle of the horse race and the spectacle of the political race.  With the installation’s imagery of filly, mare, and powerful black stud as a point of departure, it is not uneasy to imagine Republican Vice-Presidential nominee Sarah Palin, erstwhile Democratic contender Hillary Clinton, and general-election victor Barack Obama as potent, if politically incorrect, stand-ins for the electorate’s preoccupations with gender and race.  An article on The Huffington Post (“Horsin’ Around,” Ryan Davis, May 29, 2008) reported on the ways in which de la Haba’s equine tableaux crystallized these issues.

The installation’s symbolism doesn’t stop with politics.  The horses’ sexually responsive poses allude more literally to the staggering stud fees that champion horses generate for their owners, bringing forth the relationship between prostitute and pimp, worker and manager.  The piece’s three-ring-circus atmosphere parodies the circus-like machinations of the international art market, in which it is not unheard of for flash and buzz to trump talent and rigor.  Moreover, the chintzy opulence of the female horses’ apparel speaks to the slippery slope (particularly slippery in the U.S.) between good, questionable, and poor taste; between diamonds, Swarovski crystal, and cubic zirconia; between David Rockefeller, Donald Trump, and Liberace.  Nowhere are these distinctions more ambiguous than in gaming culture, with its Weimarian decadence, its ribaldry ever on the cusp of curdling into seamy grotesquerie.  Finally, the horses evoke de la Haba’s dualistic view of human nature.  He tempers his anthropomorphization of animals with a counter-thesis on humankind’s bestiality.  Hanging outside Between Nothingness and Paradise’s “center ring” is the artist’s photographic self-portrait as Pan-like daemon lover, The Good Shepherd Lost One, which depicts de la Haba with ram’s horns sprouting from his head and a dead goat draped around his shoulders.

Such muscular juxtapositions, on closer inspection, betray more nuanced overtones and pose rich questions.  Is the great black stud’s hyper-masculinity a celebration, satire, or deconstruction of male chauvinism?  Is the whorish supplication of the filly and mare part of a feminist or post-feminist critique?  And of the two public figures de la Haba cites, in his artist statement, as influences for the show—chameleonic gender-bender David Bowie and macho-man writer/photographer Peter Beard—which is the artist’s truer conceptual godfather?

Neither, perhaps, and both.  Somewhere beneath the heaving thumping gonzo go-for-brokeness of this self-aware but ultimately Romantic enterprise is a yearning for enlightened, European-style synthesis as an antidote to the American drive to dichotomy.  We are bestial and celestial, the artist implies; we are of sex and soul, nefariousness and nobility and all the waxings and wanings in between.  It is a third option that Gregory de la Haba seeks:  a dialectic at the midpoint of oblivion and nirvana.  He and we may never attain it in reality, but we can glimpse it, searing and sordid and twelve feet tall, in this challenging, unforgettable exhibition.

—Richard Speer is the author of the biography Matt Lamb:  The Art of Success (John Wiley & Sons).  A contributing critic at ARTnews and Art, Ltd. magazines, he has also penned reviews, essays, and articles for Newsweek, Salon, The Los Angeles Times, Opera News, GLASS Quarterly, and Digital Photo Pro.  He is visual arts critic at Willamette Week, the Pulitzer Prize-winning alternative weekly in Portland, Oregon.