David Altmejd: Body of Origin
Body of Origin
27 July – 3 September 2020
‘I like the idea that figures can contain the infinite within themselves – there is infinity outwards and also inwards.’
In David Altmejd's work the accidents, thematic strands and visual iconography of one project are reconfigured and reformed in the next, as if by the natural processes of evolution. Like living organisms, his works appear always in flux, transforming and metamorphosing, radiating an animistic energy. Blurring the distinctions between degeneration and regeneration, the man-made and the natural, his practice encapsulates a prismatic and detailed view of life.
There is a correspondence between Altmejd’s concept of circulatory energy and Confucian, Ayurvedic and Tibetan notions of the universe contained in each human body. His sculptures, with their grottoes and cavities, excavations and excrescences, can be seen as manifestations of those macrocosmic systems, and each is in itself a key to a multiplying cosmos that is the entirety of his oeuvre. This non-chronological exploration of the artist’s work is an attempt at offering a form of cosmogony – a model explaining the formation and structure of Altmejd’s universe.
‘I like the idea that the universe was the size of a head just before the big bang.’
Eve (2019) is not Altmejd’s first head, but sharing a name with the first woman makes her an appropriate starting point for an exploration of the family resemblances and shared DNA between the various lineages of his sculptures. Rendered with straightforward realism, this direct and arresting portrait has the quality of an ur-Head, the original model from which the others, with increasingly extreme mutations and deviations, are generated.
‘I see the head as a sort of drawing. You know that some sculptors make drawings, I make heads.’
Altmejd’s sculpted heads provoke that shiver of the uncanny which lifelike sculpture tends to induce, but skilfully realistic features are interspersed with crude expressionism, gobbets of raw matter or hanks of fur. They have a hallucinatory quality – vivid and startling. One head might sprout another, inverted, so that they share a single pair of eyes. In other works the faces are gone, as if they have been scooped out, but their gaping wounds reveal cavities of dazzling crystal or the inside of a hollowed-out fruit, as if to collapse the categories of animal, vegetable and mineral. There is an immediate appeal to the senses in the artist’s juxtaposition of finely-wrought realism with crude gesture; the proximity of crystals and delicate gold chains with fur and abject matter suggesting ever-present decay.
Jacob's Ladder, 2019
The head Crystal System (2019), pictured above, causes the disconcerting sense of seeing double: its profile is repeated, resulting in a shared, mystical ‘third eye’. This work spawned a series of heads in which the features appear to mutate and grow, as if mimicking the incessant duplication of cells or the growth of crystalline structures. Jacob’s Ladder (also 2019) has tripled eyes, noses and nipples: the effect is of a reverberation or amplification, with tiny inset gems demarcating lines of energy.
Also related to this crystalline family is The Vibrating Man: The Fractured Prism (2019) who sits in a lotus position as if meditating. The contours of his limbs are repeated and his extremities multiplied, as if making visible vibrating motion, or suggestive of the pixilation that occurs on a degraded screen. Housed within a large Plexiglass structure, articulated with various chambers and apertures, the figure seems to be levitating. Appearing like a religious reliquary, the whole installation is suggestive of a powerfully concentrated nexus of energy.
‘Fake vs. real, organic vs. mineral, seductive vs. repulsive. These contrasts produce tensions, and the tensions produce energy. When energy flows through a sculpture, it becomes alive, independent, and ready to be shown.’
The cross-legged figure of Pyramid (2019) is a werewolf in meditative mood – a slacker-sage, or artist-guru whose torso sprouts extra ears and hands and whose spine opens into a crystal grotto. His pose, and the symbolism of rainbows, crystals, a planetary sphere and the pyramid inscribed on his chest hint at secret societies and esoteric rituals.
From the start of his career, Altmejd has been preoccupied with sculpture’s potential to ‘create energy’. The werewolf, with its mythical power of transformation from human to beast, has been a favourite subject since 2000, and symbolizes those oppositions – human and animal, good and evil, life and death, beauty and abjection – which fascinate the artist and fuel his imagination. Altmejd’s work is a unique and heady mix of science, magic, science fiction and gothic romanticism, a post-apocalyptic vision which is at the same time essentially optimistic, containing as it always does the potential for regeneration, evolution and invention.
Altmejd described himself early in his career as a ‘process artist’. His works not only reveal the process of their making but suggest that those processes have simply been paused in their unfolding.
Several families of monumental figures which Altmejd has been making since 2009, first in plaster and later bronze, seem to be engaged in their own making or unmaking, like the Bodybuilders which sprout hands that clutch and mould the very substance of their bodies. They appear to use material from the gallery’s very walls to give form to their bodies, as in the case of the Architects, and by dragging their own matter upwards they create angelic wings, in the case of the Watchers.
Altmejd demotes himself from sole author to a kind of collaborator: ‘I’m just helping it to stay alive’, he has explained. 'The goal is for it ‘to build itself and create its own intelligence […] I like the feeling that I’m losing control and I’m not the one making the choices […] I always hope that my work is going to be bigger than me, that it will outgrow me.’
Altmejd’s monochrome relief panels call our attention to the plaster-like material and the actions wrought on it − where it has fallen in wet splats, where a brittle, chalky surface is scratched or fractured, where hands have gouged and clawed. In Le Saut (2017), the inchoate plaster seems to bring forth an arm, stretching like Adam’s towards the finger of God in Michaelangelo’s Sistine ceiling for a life-giving spark. In Magic Loop (2017), regenerative energy is made visible in a machine-like system of constantly replicating hands and eggs. A surreal humour pervades the work as the titular ‘magic’ emerges as both a traditional ‘trick’, an egg withdrawn from behind the ear, and seductive play on the potential of the medium. In the lower right hand corner, the work reveals its own secrets as the hard plaster is neatly pulled back like a sheet of canvas to reveal further eggs; and so the loop continues.
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