In her self-titled “informal memoir” from 1965, the late Elizabeth Taylor described her electric relationship with Richard Burton thusly: “When we looked at each other, it was like our eyes had fingers and they grabbed hold, and perhaps something special did happen.” The line came to mind while I viewed Montreal-born artist David Altmejd’s spectacular new show at New York’s Andrea Rosen Gallery last weekend, and not just because of Taylor’s recent passing—although there is more than a whiff of decadent mortality to Altmejd’s sensibility. The artist’s work literalizes Taylor’s metaphor; here, a series of alarming plaster sculptures, some embedded in the gallery’s walls, have faces and bodies comprised of casts of hands and ears. In the main gallery are two of the artist’s characteristic Plexiglas encasements, in which creation myths, evolutionary biology and New Age doctrines merge in a grand meditation on the visceral nature of looking. Indeed, for Altmejd, as for Taylor, looking and being looked at are vital forms of becoming.
Entering the gallery, one encounters the first of Altmejd’s many statues in the show, Untitled 4 (The Watchers), a winged form with a cluster of ears for a face. This and all the statues are constructed of wood, foam, burlap and, on their surfaces, plaster. Altmejd has made versions of them before, as early as 2008, but these most recent iterations are without colour. Allusions abound. Most obviously, with Untitled 4’s wings, one thinks of Daedalus and Icarus—a fitting introduction to a show that concerns metamorphoses of body and space.
The figure’s ear-face introduces us to Altmejd’s eccentric efforts to illustrate the possible transference of sense functions: Can we look the way we hear, and touch the way we look? Throughout the gallery, the artist puts objects on the periphery, equating a visual experience of them with a kind of creeping: on the walls, tiny holes and small and large scrapes appear (on the north wall of the main gallery, a plaster ear looks as if it has skidded across the drywall). In a subsidiary gallery, The Architect 2 (is the piece named after Daedalus’ profession?) is a plaster figure in a Christlike pose, whose wings are long finger marks stretching onto three walls. The interventions are so raw they seem to take on sonic proportions; certainly, in the typically spare context of a contemporary commercial gallery, the interior equivalent of white noise, one feels conscious of a crunching, a breaking. In addition, a couple of mineral- and glitter-encrusted heads, also recurrent in the artist’s practice and placed inconspicuously in the main gallery’s corners, seem to scream “boo” when discovered.
In complement, Altmejd’s two Plexiglas encasements in the main gallery are symphonies. Larger in scale than the encasements usually are, the pieces, named The Vessel and The Swarm, are about so much that they nearly defy synopsis. They seem to want to contain everything about life and death and, as such, are unable to contain themselves, revealing, on inspection, a series of cracks and fissures—as if a poltergeist has been disturbed. At the heart of The Vessel is an ostensibly symmetrical composition of plaster hands and arms, positioned like a fleet of swans with, cannibalistically, modelling clay in the shape of bird heads held in their finger-beaks. Girding these forms are an excess of hand-painted threads, meticulously strung on and around the Plexiglas. The rear of The Vessel is exploded; if the work is a living thing, this is its anus, the sight at the end of which is another of the artist’s heads, suggesting an ourobouros, which has a beginning where its ending should be. Tellingly, out of the side of The Vessel come clawing plaster hands, which scrape into the plinth on which the piece rests. This is not a symmetrical work after all; its apparent design is a ruse. Just as life-energy cannot be contained, a closer look by the viewer lends as much chaos as it does order.
Similar ideas are explored in The Swarm, its superficial disarray—flights of bees and swarms of ants, everywhere—calmed and problematized by the intricacy of Altmejd’s threadwork, and of his other materials. (The bees, their bodies of Plexiglas, are given form by the lavish draping of gold chains.) Heads appear again, comically outfitted with wigs that are jarringly contemporary: Orpheus decapitated, but crowned with dime-store beauty.
More myths abound in this show and in all of Altmejd’s work: in addition to Orpheus and Daedalus, Leda’s rape by Zeus’ swan comes to mind, as does Eve’s genesis from Adam’s rib, both stories about the violence and perversity, the inward- and outward-turning qualities, of the generation of life. It’s no wonder that these are also the subjects of classical sculptures such as Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne, wherein the figure is suspended in potentiality, its initial identity both expanded upon and eradicated. Altmejd’s mastery as a contemporary artist lies precisely in this adherence to his discipline’s basic principles and themes, but also in his own repudiation of any aesthetic confines. His forthcoming opera Conte crépusculaire, created with composer-performer Pierre Lapointe and opening May 4 at Galerie de l’UQAM, marks yet another creative shifting of shape. Altmejd’s gaze, ever insatiable, doesn’t merely touch; it tastes, smells and hears, too.