The art of Maxine Kim Stussy (b. 1923) and Jan Stussy (1921-1990) sits on a mysterious median—figurative, but not at all representational—at least of anything or anybody in the real world. Its figures cry in the language of humanity, but its embodiments are far from human.
For 42 years — from 1948 to Jan’s death — the couple formed a creative partnership: he as painter, she predominately as a sculptor. Their work, which they often exhibited together, displays a kinship, a co-equality, perhaps, in envisioning the animal in humanity and vice versa. Mid-century, they were a power couple on the LA art scene.
You can catch both their clashes and kinships at a show at the Woodbury University School of Architecture’s little WUHO (Woodbury University Hollywood Outpost) gallery, set smack among the tacky lingerie shops on the Walk of Fame in mid-Hollywood.
The bland, red-gauze draped show window dummies nearby provide a striking contrast to the twenty creations that compose “The Human Beast: Art of Maxine Kim Stussy & Jan Stussy.’’ These are presided over by M. K. Stussy’s looming female “The Watcher,” (below) all of 7-1/2 feet tall, and intricately composed of linked warmly-finished wooden forms: she resembles a powerful but nurturing pagan forest-goddess as she towers over the rest of the show with a received, sinister patience.
The bronze “Waiting Dancer,” on the other hand, offers both grace and pure menace, with an inhumanly triangular head. The figure is seemingly composed of desiccated vegetable shapes and more limbs than any human dancer would require.
M. K.’s animal sculptures are somewhat more reassuring, particularly 3 horse-works on hand here. “My Patio (Man Horse),” another wood assemblage, but less composed than “The Watcher;” the bronze “Junk Horse,” and “Sitting Horse” (above). Like “Patio,” “Sitting Horse” puts a quadruped in a human pose, japing at mankind’s animal nature. The animal is revealed in human silliness. The bronze "Yard Bird” is one of her smallest works, but also one of the most effective. Shaped much like some Cretaceous-period feathered dinosaur, its beaked face is lined with contempt for all it sees.
Jan Stussy’s pictures often invoke sculptural aspects within the two-dimensional frame. Aggressive perspectives often shove precisely detailed but hard-to-place objects in the face of the viewer. But in contrast to his wife’s work, Jan Stussy’s work can also be straightforwardly representative. Like his charcoal-rendered 1957 “Sebastian,” (below) a portrait of the martyred saint, who is here not just transfixed by arrows, but partially flayed, in a view from below that is also an anatomical tour-de-force.
27 years later, Stussy’s ‘’Self-Portrait in an Anatomical Sweatshirt’’ (in the slideshow) recalls "Sebastian,’’ but the painter’s flayed chest is now worn like a fashion statement as he turns his face away, as though he were modeling his weird garment.
Both artists were obsessed with the concept of “beast.” M.K.’s tend to stand or sit like humans, but Jan Stussy’s are largely quadrupeds. King of them all is his 24-foot long “Untitled (large beast, six panels),’’ (below) a sprawling charcoal-on-canvas bull full of farcically overstated masculinity, pawing invisible turf. He plays a sexual omega to “The Watcher’s” wary femininity.
A series of 1988 untitled, amped-up lithographs is labeled, parenthetically, (birds). None of the figures is particularly bird-like, but each of them seems to occupy the same eldritch “Human Beast” territory between the human and the animal that is the habitat of so much of his wife’s work. Yet tiny flecks of intelligence hide here and there throughout both of their works in this distinctly unusual and worthwhile show.
If you decide to go, note that the WUHO Gallery’s hours are unconventional for a gallery. On Thursday, it's open from 1p - 8p. Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, it's open from 1p - 6p. WUHO is at 6518 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles 90028.