Bernardi Roig’s sculptures at the Phillips Collection are, shall we say, hard to miss. First, what looks like a man-sized cage now glows ominously at the corner of P and 21st streets NW. (It’s been recently vacated, judging by the bent bars, and it does actually glow.) Sculptures of five disheveled bald men have taken up residence elsewhere, both inside and outside the museum. “NO/Escape,” an exhibit by Mallorcan sculptor Roig, finds these marbled men lurking about the grounds, attending to their Sisyphean tasks. They’re harmless enough, save for one.
In principle, the one sculpture is no different from any of Roig’s sculptures, from this show or any other exhibit. For years, Roig has been absorbed by a single everyman figure, a totem he has depicted again, and again, and again in the form of a shirtless, shapeless, hairless, hopeless mope. In “NO/Escape,” this figure isn’t any better or worse off. But it suffers a separate fate.
Physically, Roig’s uber-subject resembles the actor Michael Chiklis, best known for his portrayal of the ruthless Vic Mackey in The Shield, if he were coated in a fine marble dust. Spiritually, Roig’s prototypical sad-sack might be an end-state Billy Corgan: Despite all his rage, he’s still just a rat, even out of his cage. Beyond the male-pattern baldness, the Smashing Pumpkins singer and Roig’s sculptures share a flair for melodrama and technique undiminished by subtlety.
Every one of Roig’s sculptures delivers its angsty message with a snarled yowl. In “The Man of Light” (2005), Roig’s man pulls a cord of fluorescent light tubes up the stairwell of the Phillips Collection, literally dragging illumination behind him as he goes. In “Acteón” (2005), Roig’s man is impaled on a horizontal column, a bar erected outside the museum between the Phillips residence and the more recent addition, as he peers over a fluorescent tube, a contemporary retelling of the myth of Diana and Actaeon from Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
These two sculptures alone reveal the cut of Roig’s gib. His are figurative sculptures made with a classical attention to detail but joined by the modernist marker of a fluorescent tube. The sculptures are arrayed under the guise of installation art, yet invested with an almost painterly notion of their own historical worthiness. Roig’s work exploits a lawful-neutral alignment: The artist plainly abides by strictures of representational art and narrative content, but he is happy to take advantage of modernist strategies regarding space and relational aesthetics.
Yet the one work at the Phillips show—just this one damned work—overcomes the convenient, collapsible, repetitive politics of Roig’s whole career arc. That piece is “An Illuminated Head for Blinky P. (The Gun)” (2010), and it is the most compelling installation in five years of the Phillips Collection’s “Intersections” shows.
The title of the piece refers to the post-war German abstract painter Blinky Palermo, whom viewers may remember from his 2012 retrospective at the Hirshhorn, although the connection to Palermo here isn’t apparent. Two other artists, contemporaries of Palermo, would seem to be a better fit—Jasper Johns and Dan Flavin, artists who linger behind most of Roig’s sculptures—but they’re not the subjects of this one, either. This Roig sculpture is instead locked in dialogue with (of all artists!) Honoré Daumier, the 19th-century French caricaturist, painter, and social critic.
The moment comes unexpectedly in “NO/Escape.” In the doorway of a gallery in the Phillips residence stands one of Roig’s marble men. He’s locked his lips on a fluorescent bulb installed across the entryway at face level (looking very much like an homage to Johns and Flavin, but no matter). Behind this figure is a gallery filled with cartoons by Daumier, dating from the 1830s to the 1860s. The room is completely inaccessible. Each one of Daumier’s works packs more voltage than a three-foot-long fluorescent bulb; each one is rendered dark and unreadable.
The juxtaposition could not be queerer, in the best sense of the word: It is wild and fertile with interpretative possibility. While drawing illustrations for the newspaper La Charivari, Daumier often exploited the trope of a notorious fictional scoundrel and conman called Robert Macaire to send up various qualities of the bourgeoisie and aristocracy alike. It is tempting to think that the Phillips is drawing on Daumier’s work to give a name for Roig’s voiceless wretch, each anguished iteration a modern-day Macaire. But viewers won’t be able to see what these Daumier drawings have to say.
I prefer to think that Daumier has given form to Roig’s infinite sadness: Picture Roig’s slumping dufus, assigned as Daumier’s jailor, enduring for all eternity the latter artist’s incisive barbs. The very thought of an artist like Roig going up against a critic like Daumier is enough to explain the slouch in the sculpture’s shoulders. It isn’t necessarily a pretty sight. Were I the pseudo-modernist sculpture trying to contain the force of Daumier, I’d sooner climb back into that jail cell on the front lawn.
1600 21st St. NW. $10-$12. (202) 387-2151. phillipscollection.org