David Altmejd

A LOT OF PEOPLE have picked up on the “gothic” aspects of David Altmejd’s art over the years, but I’ve always loved his sculptures for their unapologetic, homespun flamboyance. Elaborate as a Neapolitan crèche or a Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt tableau, Altmejd’s witty diamanté works can stress the horror in horror vacui while also riffing on the placid display styles of Minimalist sculpture à la Sol LeWitt and Robert Morris.

This handsome catalogue—edited by book savant Isabel Venero and featuring texts by quixotic young writers such as Trinie Dalton, Christopher Glazek, and Kevin McGarry—gives Altmejd good face. It also provides a few useful revelations. Who knew, as Robert Hobbs points out, that Altmejd had already précised his elementary juxtapositions as early as 1998, when, as a student at Montreal’s Université du Québec, he strewed a few wigs across a table (Table No. 2). A year later, having moved on to the MFA program at Columbia University in New York, Altmejd made his First Werewolf, a sculpture that featured—tucked in a nook set in a large wooden base—a werewolf head fashioned from Sculpey, rhinestones, and synthetic hair. And thus Altmejd slyly introduced his key cipher, a strange/familiar figure that would abet and foil exegesis for years to come. The werewolf, as any Altmejd wallah knows, is hardly a teenage meme. Rather, this vulgar subject condenses the artist’s primal concerns: transformation, regeneration, the failures of humanist morality. Also, “energy”—that flagrantly unhip, uncrit word that’s a touchstone in Altmejd’s lexicon, and which has something to do with the ineffability of composition, the interaction of materials across space.

David Altmejd, The Hunter, 2007, wood, mirror, epoxy clay, acrylic paint, horsehair, 12' 7" x 4' 1 1/2" x 3' 5".

“Across” was for several years the primary way Altmejd’s sculptures worked in the world; his ingredients moved laterally along an elevated but still largely horizontal plane. But in 2007, with his “Bird Man” (the centerpiece of his massive installation The Index, the artist’s contribution to the Canadian pavilion at the Fifty-Second Venice Biennale), and the inauguration of his series “Giants”—creepy-beautiful colossi made from the same mirrors, crystals, twine, etc., that riddle his other work—Altmejd staked out a vertical dimension. At around the same time, he began to literalize the artist’s touch—clustering plaster casts of his own hand into gaudy, carnal things. While Altmejd’s work has always foregrounded its “man-madeness,” this reification of touch materializes, in a way that only Altmejd can, a dialectics of production and accumulation. Was that too wordy? Because what I mean is, when the incessant world gets to be too much, Altmejd’s way of organizing that too-muchness can give me a little peace.