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David Altmejd: In the Belly of the Beast

What, for lack of a better term so far, we have come to call the Occupy movement, has, if nothing else, galvanized the way we think about the vast gulf between the haves and the have-nots in the Western world. Art, a practice that, for most of its recent history, has resisted (at least in theory) power and the status quo, ought, we might imagine, to identify with David rather than Goliath in this unbalanced equation. Yet, ever more beholden to an overheated market, art now occupies a morally precarious position as artists increasingly risk becoming little more than bibelotiers to the super-rich. From this more acute perspective, recent triumphal presentations of trophy art, such as “Skin Fruit,” a selection of slick figurative grotesqueries from the collection of Greek billionaire Dakis Joannou at New York’s New Museum in 2010, appear more egregious and offensive than ever.

Included in “Skin Fruit,” the work of Canadian David Altmejd escaped the opprobrium ladled by critics (including this one) on some other artists, in part because his sculptural giants, for all their size, simply lack the overweening gigantism so bullyingly displayed by even more massive works in Joannou’s inventory. I also want to believe that Altmejd was spared because of a certain quality inherent to his work, which I have long admired, not only for its beauty and evident skill, but for its poignant identification with the struggles of the underdog; his early decomposing werewolf heads really did seem to thematize—phantasmatically—the pathos of adolescence, and of queer adolescence in particular.

Altmejd’s current exhibition occupies the Brant Foundation Art Study Center, an immaculately designed, by appointment only, barn-like private museum on paper and publishing magnate Peter Brant’s very one-percent horse farm in tony Greenwich, Connecticut. The artist has filled a series of spaces on two floors, deftly installing his work to form an expansive sequence of immersive interiors. At the entrance hangs an untitled white plaster panel from 2011, the plaster gouged in two places before it was dry, apparently, by the fingers of a hand; and the hand, also cast in plaster, remains, disembodied and frozen in the act, like a crime made marmoreal. The work seems to neatly encapsulate the urge to fabricate, to craft by transforming, even vandalizing, something raw and pristine—surely an apt metaphor for much contemporary art—but it veers towards preciousness. Better, in a nearby room, the walls themselves have been similarly gouged, in long ribbons, ridged by fingers and moving towards an upper corner, where the displaced plaster and the hands that displaced it come away from the wall and threaten to spill over us, a petrified wave cresting above our heads in a crescendo of simultaneous creation and destruction. In the centre of the room on a pedestal rests Untitled (Dark) from 2001, a pair of Altmejd’s signature werewolf heads. Severed, decaying, sprouting symmetrical crystals, and here conjoined at the face, they form a sort of visual palindrome, blind Siamese twins mirrored in glittering rictus, organic death transmogrified as mineral growth.

Other heads follow. Human, male, they sport facial hair, glass eyes, and strange fleshy protuberances, or are riddled with gaping cavities and inexplicable sockets. Mounted upside down on posts, these recent sculptures no longer seem to speak of gay youth, but of broader, more mature concerns. Bedraggled, wounded, diseased, impaled on metal pikes, yet still somehow vain, they might embody the existential vulnerability and distress of middle age. Some of them stand in a two-storey hall of broken mirrors, their reflections doubled, redoubled and fractured. The hall reaches up to reflect the impeccably exposed rafters and trusses that support the Brant Foundation’s roof (as well as reflecting a skeletal figure encased in a Plexiglas box), creating a kaleidoscopic jumble of angles and geometries formed by the wooden beams. Somehow this has the dual effect of reminding the viewer of the impressive architecture of the building—and the expense that made it possible—and erasing that very architecture in a dizzying, hallucinatory mise en abyme. It’s a transformative use of the space, but one that doesn’t quite manage to escape the implications of the space itself.

Altmejd’s galerie des glaces leads to an equally imposing space, a double-height room that can best be described as a hall of giants. Yet five of the figures here are human-scaled, towering over us by virtue of their extremely tall, narrow pedestals. Three of these, from the series The Watchers (2011), on mirrored plinths, comprise agglomerations of kneaded white plaster and plaster hands in roughly human form—bodies in the process of making and remaking themselves—with spreading appendages like wings. Some sort of nod to the visitations of Angels in America seems intended, but also to the Nike of Samothrace. Two figures from the series Guides (2011)—geometric constructions of mirrors on even taller, white pedestals—suggest angels more abstractly. One of the two actual giants in the room, The Pit (2011), some 12-and-a-half feet high, appears made of sand and fake fur; hands cast in translucent plastic in a variety of pastel hues crawl over his body, clawing and poking at the sand, seeming to both mold and tear apart the figure. Standing with a doubled arm outstretched in a gesture that faintly evokes a Roman orator, he recalls a sandcastle simultaneously being built and eroded by an incoming tide. About the same size and covered in hair, The Island (2011) has one leg left unfinished to reveal its underlying plywood structure. This giant grows Plasticine-like fungi from his shoulders, and crystals from various body parts and orifices; a bunch of green grapes pour out of a hole in his chest. Instead of a head, he wears a cluster of coconuts. Caught somewhere between yeti and tree, he is both monumental and abject—perhaps even a monument to abjection. The sculptures in this room represent the artist at his best; playful, inventive, undaunted by scale, he invests his work with multiple layers of meaning. Here, he gives us extremes of the human condition: soaring heavenward in abstraction and self-fashioned purity, on the one hand; earthbound, wretched, mired in the muck with literal feet of clay, on the other.

Upstairs, Altmejd’s tight orchestration of successive works and spaces slackens. The Swarm (2011), a huge sculpture, 20 feet long, in the form of a compartmentalized clear plastic box, fills much of one room. It contains four boy’s heads, each with a different colour wig, each subjected to a different cruelty or disfiguration, and each enmeshed in a network of coloured threads that suggests 1970s string art, a schematic diagram in three dimensions, or, perhaps, some sort of bodiless nervous system. A multitude of honeybees flies through the box, intimating connections between ravaged bodies and a natural world on the brink of collapse; oversized and abstracted, however, the bees appear cartoonish, spoiling the effect. Close by, two supersized werewolf heads suffer a similar fate, resembling Disney characters left out too long in the rain.

The exhibition’s final room retains its clubby furnishings, with chandeliers, carpets, upholstered chairs, and potted orchids on curtained windowsills. More of Altmejd’s mounted heads sit on lacquered tables, becoming part of the decor. In the centre stands Wood Clock, a 2007 sculpture in the form of a tree trunk supported at a diagonal by stalagmites and struts covered in mirrors. Stuffed birds, fake moss and foliage, and a pair of men’s shoes complete the tableau. By no means one of the artist’s most compelling or coherent works, Wood Clock feels in this particular setting like an overgrown collectible figurine, a gothic centrepiece escaped from an eccentric dining table.

In the end, it would be too much to say that the milieu of the exhibition space had defeated the artist. The triumph of the hall of giants outweighs the ignominy of the drawing room. The meanings of the inventions of Altmejd’s hand and imagination survive, if a little worse for wear. Yet we cannot help but see his work—or, at least the quandaries raised by its presentation in a place like the Brant Foundation—in a different light than we would have only a short time ago. In history, as in art exhibitions, context is everything.

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