By DANIEL SHERER Feb. 16, 2014
David Altmejd’s latest work is marked by a high degree of internal heterogeneity. Driven by a singular visionary energy, it deploys a variety of materials, including synthetic and found objects, and two basic formal codes. On the one hand, it registers a unique return to figuration, a grotesque representation of the human body privileging unexpected transpositions of eyes, hands, mouths and faces. On the other hand, in contrast to the formally ruinous and materially transformative object-based practices, room-size installations exhibit a powerful grasp of modernist abstraction emphasizing neutral frameworks and an all-encompassing logic of display. These large transparent enclosures made of plexiglas contain the dismembered, transposed and reconfigured bodies. Characterized by an impressive technical and material ingenuity, these volumes occupy an interstitial space between system-based strategies, seemingly overburdened by their own rationality, and the incipient or actual breakage of the vitrine-like environments, which, alongside the deformed human figures feature bits and pieces of animal fur, artificial plants and fruit. All of these elements are placed within the installations in ways that establish multiple analogies and resonances with the represented teratologies.
Significantly, the mirror glass coating the wall across from the largest piece in the show, The Flux and the Puddle (2014), is broken, initiating a fractured dialogue with the cavernous holes in the main part of the installation located directly across from it. In this way Altmejd seems to be saying: since modern and contemporary representation is in crisis, and has been for quite some time (at least since Duchamp, and probably earlier), the artist might as well run with it and take pleasure in this crisis. Altmejd’s vision is caught up in a vertigo of the visual and spatial field that calls to mind, among other possible references, the shooting scene multiplied to infinity at the climax of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil. This aspect of his approach is both dark and exhilarating, and makes one realize just how solemn, pointlessly serious and pretentious so much contemporary artistic production appears to be when it is compared to Altmejd’s partly Minimalist, partly soiled funhouse marked by endless metamorphoses. Both of these dimensions of his work, the eroticized and ruinous corporeality and the see-through plexiglas apparatus, figure prominently in the show at Andrea Rosen, vying for the attention of the astonished spectator, who as a result of the multiple stimuli emanating from the installations, literally does not know where to turn first.
Combining a heroic sense of scale with a reconfiguration of the male figure that is both precarious and extreme, Altmejd’s latest work is remarkable for its inflection of the erotic, the corporeal and the seductive in unexpected ways. This is particularly evident in The Eye (2014), an installation which features a decaying human figure made of wax, quartz and resin, with geodes growing in its riven body cavity, suspended upside down with a yellowed eye in his back. The dominant effect is one of barely controlled phantasmagoria, of energies rending the body that are kept precariously in check. In this work as well as its larger pendant, Flux and Puddle, simulated kiwi fruits, cantaloupes, bananas and strawberries constructed deftly out of polystyrene and clay conjure up eyes, mouths, and ears, both due to their proximity to the represented body parts and their insertion into the figures themselves.
By adopting these and similar strategies fusing violent juxtapositions, suggestive analogies and a filigree-like delicacy, Altmejd’s aesthetic puts the negative, death and loss to work by mobilizing an insistent logic of inversion: in his installations and free-standing sculptures, diverse instances of monstrous transformation tear the reconfigured bodies apart to reveal hidden lines of force, trajectories suspended between different states of matter, jewel-like depths and crystalline incrustations. Indeed, due to its visionary intensity, Altmejd’s installations give the viewer the impression of being whisked away on some hallucinatory spelunking expedition deep into the nether regions between form and informe.
Altmejd’s approach has numerous erotic and homoerotic overtones. The figures, clothed or naked, interact less with each other than, potentially, with the observer who is momentarily drawn into their orbit. In this regard a specific part of Flux and Puddle is worth noting that involves a glory-hole like condition in which the viewer is invited to peek closely at the zipped-up fly of a male standing figure whose face is hidden. This dimension of his work makes it all the more alluring, perhaps even to those viewers who may have initially thought they have already seen every variant of that register in the most recent arenas of contemporary art.
If the neutral, the monstrous, the erotically charged, and the formless are dimensions that appear frequently in the art of the past ten years in varying combinations, some more effective than others, not many artists can get away with the heroic these days: indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that Altmejd is one of the few artists who, with equal facility and conviction, currently traverse visual territory marked by an aesthetic of ruin, poised deftly between sublimity and abjection. His previous show in New York at PS 1 (2009) consisted of sculptural works conceived and realized at an imposing scale that made one imagine that some rugged giant of Giambologna, or the Adam or Michelangelo, had wandered out of the Boboli Gardens, or stepped down from the Sistine ceiling, only to get caught up in shady dealings with Salvador Dali that caused their entrails to be exposed by magical transparency and to be oddly extruded from their visceras.
In the PS1 show of 2009, the neutral elements and transparent box-like environments tended to be separate from the rotting, blown apart, and reconfigured bodies. Now the latter stand or hang at different angles, including upside down, bat-like, within the abstract plexiglas volumes, reflecting a higher degree of integration between the antithetical formal languages the artist has adopted. In both cases the result oscillates between the pervasively eroticized and the conspicuously abject, making the viewer uneasy and intrigued at the same time. In this respect Altmejd’s art reads as an exercise in desublimation, as if to say: the transparency of the eroticized, yet ruined figure shows the viewer that one can “see through” the once dominant Freudian thesis that all art is sublimated erotic energy.
Like Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy—perhaps more like the latter, given his predilection for the gigantic and taste for generalized decomposition, which is however more clean and formalized than McCarthy’s—Altmejd at once invokes and voids unconscious processes. In his earlier work, this unflinching emptying out of bourgeois subjectivity occurs on one of its privileged artistic sites, the heroic male nude of classical and humanist, and specifically Michelangelesque inspiration. In the work at Andrea Rosen, the male figures are more prosaic, but a hint of the earlier classicizing forms can be discerned. In both cases, the approach manages to be fresh and knowing all at once.
The cumulative effect of the installations is multilayered, almost symphonic, and works powerfully across different scales. At times it borders on a sort of Grand Guignol eroticism, as when the congealed, off-white, semen-like ooze runs in black grooves of clay, kneaded by dark seated figures, or colored congealed plastics transgress the boundaries of the transparent display environments. Creeping onto the floor space of the gallery, if only by a few inches, these materialized forces enter into an unsettling dialectic with the reflexive tunnels that contain wax decapitated heads that are multiplied by coppery mirrors to infinity. In this and other respects the pieces, though static, are interactive, engaging the viewer in uneasy, disjointed, yet always dynamic ways.
Altmejd’s large-scale machines of broken representation, made up of innumerable tiny relays, constitute a kind of forcing-house of the monstrous. In these works, to realize the artistic ideal is to see it fall apart: a process which undergoes the most varied transformations, many of which make us consider the possibility that the triumphant exposure of the contemporary art object is inextricably bound up with its own decomposition.
The breaking up of the ideal is, in fact, an integral aspect of the logic of his work. On the other hand, one of the secrets of Altmejd’s art is that it makes the very opposite of the ideal— monstrous experiences at the limit of comprehension that would be repellent under other circumstances--alluring and even visually captivating. Yet, whether one approaches his unsettling aesthetic universe from the standpoint of sublimation or desublimation, one thing is certain: his synthetic and transformative approach shows every sign of projecting itself into the future by exploring forms of representation poised at the limit between life and death, motion and stasis, past and present.WM
Dr. Daniel Sherer teaches Architectural History and Theory at Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (1998 to the present) and at the Yale School of Architecture (2008 to the present). He received his PhD from the Harvard University Department of the History of Art and Architecture in 2000. His areas of research include Italian Renaissance and Baroque architecture and art from 1400 to 1750, Modern Architecture from 1900 to 1970, contemporary architecture, historiography and theory, and contemporary art, frequently in relation to architecture.view all articles from this author