In a new sculpture that expands upon previous ideas and serves as an engine for a host of new ones, David Altmejd reveals himself to be at an illuminating juncture at this moment in his two-decade career. A recognizably human bust that is nonetheless composed of enigmatic features and formal manipulations—not to mention the rabbit that is cradled in the figure’s hands—the sculpture opens spaces both within itself and within the minds of its viewers, and becomes a portal through which to encounter the past, present, and future of Altmejd’s project.
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wood, steel, resin, expandable foam, epoxy clay, epoxy gel, artist's hair, poodle hair, acrylic paint, quartz, glass eyes, glass rhinestones, and pencil
30 x 22 x 17 1/2 inches
(76.2 x 55.9 x 44.5 cm)
With its multiple cast features, uncannily rendered skin, and refracted gaze, enter (2020) embodies the paradoxes that make David Altmejd’s work such a compelling, vibrant feature of the contemporary landscape. Like all of his sculptures, the figure is portrayed in a state of flux, emerging from its materials in a way that captures the energies of biological, geological, and even perhaps spiritual or metaphysical growth. At the same time, this growth leads to the disintegration of fixed identity, transforming the subject of the sculpture into a being that cannot be described as any one person or thing. Altmejd emphasizes this in-between status even further by intimately merging the ears of the rabbit––also multiplied––with the body of the bust, generating a hybrid of organs and species.
The crystalline nature of the figure’s facial features suggests naturally occurring numerical patterns and geometries that operate according to what can feel like a divine order. Whether the sense of balance they elicit is inherent to the objective world or the subjective experience of the observer is a moot point; indeed, Altmejd is most interested in places and states in which subjective and objective ways of seeing reality converge. This sensibility has been an abiding feature of his work since the beginning. It appears in objects large and small, though it is perhaps most clearly delineated in some of the biggest, room-filling sculptures he has executed throughout his career.
The Flux and the Puddle (2014), for instance, filled an entire gallery at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Humlebæk, Denmark in a 2015 exhibition. With numerous human and animal figures, as well as many other organic and inorganic objects, all inhabiting an expansive network of rectilinear Plexiglas spaces, the sculpture makes literal the kind of multidimensionality that philosophers and science fiction authors write about and a number of filmmakers have tried to depict on screen. As a result, viewers are able to see laid out before them a multitude of perspectives on time and space, both of which tend to increasingly resemble infinity (or nothingness) the closer one looks. A single moment breaks down into countless moments, and a specific point in space, magnified and reflected inward and outward, can be said to contain a whole universe.
That said, the paths by which Altmejd arrives at these cosmological spaces are decidedly close at hand. The dematerialized world, as well as the dematerialized body, emerge from things that can be touched, manipulated, and sculptured. Altmejd avails himself of many materials and techniques, following the mercurial guide of intuition as it steers him toward a series of encounters with an object as it develops in his hands. Mirrored cubes, for instance, have played a key role in certain works, providing him with a way to build structures that hover between visibility and invisibility. A sculpture like Matrix I (2016), with its nod to the mathematically inclined rigor of Sol LeWitt, hints at Altmejd’s interest in systems that seem to proliferate by their own logic and of their own accord, exceeding the strictures of human intentions. Accordingly, the human body is no more than an implied presence conjured by the work’s cruciform verticality or reflected, fleetingly, in the lines of its grid.
To produce enter, by contrast, Altmejd began working as close to his own body as possible, making a series of resin casts of his own features. Whether or not the sculpture can accurately be called a self-portrait is a question that gets at some of the most engaging issues at stake in his project, because it foregrounds the impossibility of knowing how to define what a self is in the first place. Any given self, furthermore, appears differently depending on the conditions under which it is being observed, including whether it is being examined from inside or outside. Like other recent sculptures featuring figures whose body parts have been multiplied, enter suggests that the self is not a unified singularity at all, but a shifting, elusive series of events that are as variable as waves in the ocean or clouds in the sky.
“I think one of the things that defines the body and that defines people is that they are infinite. People are more amazing than any art. Why is the most powerful experience you will ever have seeing someone in a room for the first time and completely falling in love with them? I understand when people say they’ve had an experience in front of a work of art that changed their life, but I don’t think it is as strong as what happens with a person. Why is a person standing in front of you so powerful? Why is that presence so strong? I think it’s because they contain infinity.”
Altmejd creates the figure’s skin by applying layer upon layer of epoxy into which he has mixed pigments. The surprising translucency and variation that result give it a lifelike, almost breathing presence, which in turn grounds its less realistic features. Fidelity to what is normally considered “real,” however, is not an end in and of itself. Rather, familiarity becomes a point on a spectrum that also includes absolute strangeness; put another way, familiarity is a temporary convergence of expectations and matter, one that inevitably gives way to an abyss of unfamiliarity. Altmejd’s willingness to confront his own—and potentially his audience’s—loss of bearings gives his work a mystical quality that, in terms of cultural history, could be said to have roots in romanticism.
Speaking about an important early bust sculpture entitled Sarah Altmejd (2003) in a 2015 interview with Robert Enright that appeared in Border Crossings, Altmejd notes:
“I really like this relationship between the inside and the outside and the recognition that the infinity inside is the same as the infinity outside. It’s interesting because that was the relationship I was thinking about when I made Sarah Altmejd. When it was in front of me I started to think of the Caspar David Friedrich painting that makes it on to the cover of every book about Romanticism… I thought it would be amazing if you turned [the man in the painting] around and saw that his face was actually an infinite black hole. In my mind what he is looking at is the infinity of the landscape and that is a symbol for the infinity inside of him. The infinitely large is the same as the infinitely small; the inside is the same as the outside.”
As Altmejd's practice has become more self-aware and harder to define, however, its romanticism has given way to something more overtly spiritual, a way of seeing and making imbued with a willingness to dive into the depths of the psyche and its ever-proliferating symbols and images. Instead of leading the way based on his own conscious aims, Altmejd has allowed the work itself to dictate how it evolves, following ideas that overflow from the production of one sculpture directly into the conception of the next, and paying special attention to synchronistic correspondences between forms that arise in these processes and things he observes outside the studio.
Such is the case with enter, which comes on the heels of an entire group of sculptures in which human busts have been hybridized with rabbits. If these previous works focused on combining two mammals into a single being, in enter Altmejd treats them as discrete creatures for whom the boundary between delineated identities is breaking down. The human—whose hands are not exempt from the force of multiplication that has also acted upon his eyes, ears, nose, and mouth—holds the rabbit in a cubist caress. The fur of the rabbit originated as hair from a real poodle who happens to be the artist’s dog.
This interspecies connection generates countless metaphorical readings, posing questions about how two beings communicate—and commune—with one another beyond the limits of language or rational thought. Interestingly, the melding of man and rabbit does not come across as merely a biological phenomenon. It is as if Altmejd has depicted two separate realities in the process of becoming porous to one another. Neither man nor rabbit is the central point of reference; man dreams rabbit and rabbit dreams man, and the intersection of their dreams gives rise to a third entity that might exist independently of both of them. The idea that the universe as we know it might be founded upon consciousness rather than matter weaves together religious traditions, works of literature, and scientific theories from throughout the ages. But the paradoxical urge to represent such an idea precisely by constructing a bodily analogue of it has far fewer precedents. Fantasy, myth, visionary art, and science fiction and horror movies are some of the places where it appears with some regularity.
To name a few examples that prove useful in considering Altmejd’s oeuvre, the films of David Cronenberg are full of instances in which flesh is shown to be an elastic substance that can be stretched and transformed to approximate the vast, dizzying spaces of the mind. Both eXistenZ (1999) and Cronenberg’s adaptation of William S. Burroughs's 1959 novel Naked Lunch (1991) contain many such scenes. In the latter, a writer enters drug-induced, hallucinatory states to traverse a world (or worlds) in which typewriters are insects and the innards of giant centipedes are used to make a powerful narcotic, all in the name of coming to terms with the act of writing.
In many ways, enter is also a work about what happens when we follow our instincts across the threshold into the unknown. The rabbit, after all, is an animal that moves between above-ground and underground realms, and "rabbit holes" are spaces in which we lose ourselves and allow our passions to override any sense of measure. Beginning in 2013, Altmejd made a series of sculptures entitled Untitled (Rabbit Holes) that evoke this very state. Each consists of a head whose most notable feature is a gaping, crystal-filled void. Sometimes installed outdoors, these holes read as openings in the earth as well as poetic references to the limitlessness of what lies inside the human skull.
By physicalizing the rabbit as a distinct being, however, Altmejd tacitly acknowledges the possibility that there are entities—actual, psychological, or otherwise—acting upon us as if from without, leading us into places where we don’t expect, or are even afraid, to go. enter, therefore, posits the rabbit as a kind of psychopomp, a mediator between the familiar, earthly realm and a mysterious underworld in which the human self is revealed to be multiple, unfixed, and expansive beyond the point of intelligibility. Psychopomps have taken many forms in mythological lore, but in light of this work it is interesting to note that a rabbit fills the role in Lewis Carroll’s Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865).
And like Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, in which the terrains and characters Alice encounters on her journey provide much of the tale’s characteristically surreal pathos and humor, the pleasures of Altmejd’s sculptures are to be found not only in their mind-bending conceits, but in their innumerable surface details. Here is where the experience of his work slows down and becomes intimately tangible. The inclusion of objects like crystals, as well as drawn lines, words, and other notations and marks in pencil, are the traces left behind by an imagination translating its perceptions into the stuff of personal symbolism. That their precise significations elude our grasp takes nothing away from their seductive power. Like the rabbit, they draw us further and further into Altmejd’s world, which increasingly comes to resemble the utterly strange—and shockingly familiar—world of our own self-awareness.
David Altmejd (b. 1974, Montreal) has been the subject of solo exhibitions at Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels (2016); Kunsthal KAdE, Amersfoort, Netherlands (2016); Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebaek, Denmark (2015, traveled to Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec); Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris (2014, traveled to Musée d’Art Contemporain de Montréal and Mudam Luxembourg – Musée d'Art Moderne Grand-Duc Jean); MOCA Cleveland (2012); and Brant Foundation Art Study Center, Greenwich, Connecticut (2011), among other institutions. In 2007, Altmejd represented Canada at the 52nd International Art Exhibition, La Biennale di Venezia, Venice. Recent group exhibitions include In the Spotlight of the Night Life in the Gloom, Marta Herford Museum, Herford, Germany (2019); Zombies: Pay Attention!, Aspen Art Museum, Colorado (2018); ANIMA MUNDI, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam (2018); Voyage d'hiver, Château de Versailles, France (2017); and A Material Legacy: The Nancy A. Nasher and David J. Haemisegger Collection of Contemporary Art, Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina (2016). His work is in the permanent collections of museums such as the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto; and Musée d'art moderne de la Ville de Paris. Altmejd lives and works in Los Angeles.
To learn more about David Altmejd, please view these articles from Border Crossings, WSJ., Kaleidoscope, The Believer, T Magazine, and Art Review.
Photography and video of David Altmejd works and studio by Lee Thompson, unless otherwise noted.
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