The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2011

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MAY 2011 Issue


On View
Andrea Rosen Gallery
March 18 – April 23, 2011
New York
David Altmejd,
David Altmejd, "The Swarm," 2011. Plexiglas, chain, metal wire, thread, acrylic paint, epoxy resin, epoxy clay, acrylic gel, granular medium, synthetic hair, plaster, foam, sand, quartz, pyrite, amethyst, assorted minerals, adhesive, wire, pins, needles. 102 1/2" x 244" x 84 1/2". Courtesy Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York. Photo: Jessica Eckert.

Canadian wunderkind, David Altmejd, has quickly garnered a reputation for his fantastical chimeras, often realized through Dionysian fusions of synthetic flesh, metal armature, mirror, and fur. Werewolves, half man/half animal hybrids, Paleolithic colossi—all are card-carrying members of the sculptor’s artistic army—divinations culled from the birthing stages of human consciousness, which, had they not been positioned within the white cube of the contemporary gallery, might have found a more proper ancestry on the cave walls of Lascaux. Altmejd’s latest exhibition at Andrea Rosen, however (his third solo endeavor in the space), reveals a break in the artist’s penchant for such raw manifestations of the mind-body. In the wake of Altmejd’s arsenal of fetishistic taxidermied forms, calculatingly precise architectural interventions ensue. Museum-quality dioramas, executed on the sculptural level of history painting, and site-specific evocations and evacuations of space in plaster are only a few of the formal shifts on display.

“The Vessel” (2011) is the overwhelming harbinger of the show, comprised of a series of intricately connected Plexiglas compartments that, when viewed from the front, evoke an eerie illusion of symmetrical precision. Closer inspection reveals the artist’s measured hand at work, as we soon notice the staggering number of “entry points” into and out of the object. Like Altmejd’s figurative giants, “The Vessel” contains a myriad number of small universes that lodge themselves like secrets in pockets of flesh and plastic. Lengths of fine gold chain, Plasticine hands and ears, shards of mirror and quartz, spools of multi-colored thread, seahorse and insect casts, as well as abstracted references to Avian gods, such as cranes and other airborne creatures, swarm the Plexi castle in a cacophony of frozen movement. Stimulus overload is the resulting sensation, peaked by crestfallen disappointment at the realization that the artist, usually tactile to the point of excess, has placed our curiosity at arms length behind an invisible but unbreachable barrier. There is no access point after all. Rather, Altmejd’s playful riffs on decay and regeneration have given way to an interconnected nervous system of crystalline shards, beautiful in execution but sterile in their examination of our pulsing, breathing primal spirit.

This experiment (indeed, the inner sanctum of the scientific lab is repeatedly evoked in Altmejd’s meticulous use of rare materials and Petri-dish displays) of connectedness vs. compartmentalization continues with the second monolithic vitrine, “The Swarm” (2011). Here, the artist’s immediately recognizable “heads” make a comeback as bees and other insects make a play for continuity and conquest amidst the circuit board of disembodied craniums. As in “The Vessel,” perfection and exactitude reign within the maximalist grid (a definitively anti-Minimalist gesture), but while these glittering beacons of sculptural complexity signal a shift towards prismatic dystopias—inherently dangerous for their mechanically contrived machinations—indications of doubt seep into the historically strongest facet of Altmejd’s oeuvre, his figures.

The exhibition boasts a number of freestanding plaster bodies, juxtapositions of the angelic and demonic in their fossilized ivory countenances. One installation finds a figure suspended above eye level and embedded into the gallery wall, its torso flayed and ripped open (à la Silence of the Lambs) to reveal the dark interior behind the facade. “Untitled 2 (Bodybuilders)” and “Untitled 4 (The Watchers)” (both 2011) evoke Lucifer, cast down from the heavens. Constructed almost solely from casts of the artist’s hands, these seemingly low grade productions lack the color and personality of Altmejd’s previous works such as “The Miner” (2007), “The New North” (2007), or “The Healers” (2008), all of which categorized the artist as a virtuoso savant rooted in the labyrinthian pages of Borges and Kafka. In these current figures, there is no parallel mystery of forms, however, no doppelgangers of beauty. In plain, white plaster, only the shells seem to remain.

Other demonstrations of Altmejd’s latest triumph of ingenuity over content include “Spectre” (2011), a third Plexiglas chiffonier containing rows of rare crystals: amethyst, amazonite, aragonite, black tourmaline, celestite, fluorite, hematite, dolomite, optical calcite, sulfur, selenite, rose quartz, and peridot.

Perhaps this is Altmejd’s point. Perhaps his musings on mutation and metamorphosis over the past decade, realized via fragmentary excess, have finally reached their threshold. Perhaps all we are left with are neatly packaged microchip striations with colored string; the darker side of human nature rendered impotent as a means of analyzing ourselves. If so, there is no longer a use for mirrors in the artist’s work, shards of glass that, whether we are willing to face it or not, throw our reflection back at us through the lens of Altmejd’s monsters. In this sense, the work seems to suggest that self-reflection has become a luxury we can no longer purchase; the ability to dazzle the crowd parading as the last frontier of cognitive recognition. On a formal level, these solipsistic endeavors are disappointing but they might also be more truthful. Fantasy, after all, is only fantasy. Reality is a much darker beast.


Kara L. Rooney

Kara Rooney is a Brooklyn-based artist, writer, and critic working in performance, sculptures and new media installation. She is a Managing Art Editor for the Brooklyn Rail and faculty member at School of Visual Arts, where she teaches Art History and Aesthetics.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2011

All Issues