If you haven’t yet heard of Montreal-born, New York-based artist David Altmejd, don’t feel too bad — you’re not entirely out of the loop. After all, aside from some shows in Quebec a few years back, the gay, 32-year-old sculptor/installation artist and Canada’s representative at the 2007 Venice Biennale has never before been shown in a Canadian gallery. Until now, that is, with his new Metamorphosis exhibit at the Oakville Galleries’ Gairloch Gardens.
Of course, not having heard of him because of his lack of presence in Canadian galleries doesn’t entirely let you off the hook. After all, Altmejd is, to all intents and purposes, a textbook case on how to make it big in the art world. After finishing his bachelor of fine arts at l’Université du Quebec à Montréal and participating in several promising group shows around the city, he made the pilgrimage that so many other artists have before him: off to New York City, in his case, to begin his masters of fine arts at Columbia University. He made excellent use of his time and resources at Columbia, having studio visits with art-world behemoths like Matthew Barney, David Salle and Vanessa Beecroft. After graduating, he climbed ever higher, earning spots in high-profile group shows and eventually getting representation with New York’s Andrea Rosen gallery.
Still, I’ve left out the single most important factor in this textbook case of a successful art career: talent. David Altmejd possesses talent in abundance and it’s on eminent display at Gairloch Gardens.
Given that this is his first Canadian show outside of Quebec, Altmejd was careful and deliberate about location. Gairloch was chosen precisely because of its difference from the standard gallery layout. The former mansion sits along the shores of Lake Ontario, nestled in rolling hills and stately trees. Even in the depths of Canadian winter, it’s an impressive site, and Altmejd knew well enough to take advantage and to try some tricks that he wouldn’t otherwise have the ability to pull.
The most remarkable aspect of the installation is its reliance only on ambient light. “Usually, my work is in a very closed setting, so it gives me a chance to control the lighting,” says Altmejd. “Those pieces were always shown in contexts where I created a kind of drama.” For much of his career thus far, Altmejd has exploited the artificiality of a gallery setting: walls are painted black and high-contrast spotlights lend a theatrical melodrama to his work. “Now I’m just letting the daylight in, and I’m letting the pieces mix with this kind of setting. I think it’s interesting to see what kind of different presence they have.”
The result is an interesting clash between work and setting. Gairloch is picturesque, calm and august, while Altmejd’s installations are excessive, childlike, grotesque, bawdy and melodramatic. But each lends the other a kind of gothic mood. “I think the pieces all have a kind of melancholic aspect to them,” says Altmejd, “and placed in this kind of natural, romantic setting really triggers that melancholic aspect.”
Each room is filled with its own particular sculpture. Entering the gallery, you are immediately confronted with a giant desiccated head, whose empty cavities are filled with handmade black dildos, a strap-on harness, a gimp mask, some chintzy gold necklace chain, some liberally sprinkled glitter, a staircase made of mirrors… I could go on.
In the room to the left is “Loup-Garou 2” consisting of a giant plinth, atop which rests a clear fibreglass structure that houses some stuffed birds, plastic flowers and yet more gold chain. Set into the plinth is a small passageway lined with mirrors, at the end of which, like an exclamation point after a tag line to a horror movie, lies a rotting werewolf’s head. It’s not visible directly, only via the labyrinthine reflections of the mirrors.
The room to the right holds what is, for my money, the treasure of the show, “The Lovers,” a piece from 2004. Bathed in the soft afternoon light, two life-size, half-rotted werewolf corpses lie on a plinth gently spooning, their flaccid penises resting delicately on their thighs. Flesh hangs off of their exposed bones; only instead of mimicking gore and guts, Altmejd uses painted clay and coloured crystals. There is glitter encrusted in their matted fur, and yet more gold necklace chain is threaded through their spine. If you crane your neck just so, you can see that one werewolf is gingerly fingering the other, the middle digit of his clawed hand nestled up to the knuckle in the other’s asshole.
What to make of this riotous, clashing assemblage of materials and evocations of moods?
Well, for a start, Altmejd engineers his pieces this way: There is never a single particular concept that runs through his work. Rather, Altmejd brings a childlike playfulness to his work. “As a kid, you have a really fetishistic reflex, wanting to collect little precious things and wanting to hide them away or organize them. I was like that when I was a kid. So I’m having fun doing that in my work.” He mixes this hoarding instinct with a chemist’s attention to how individual elements might react. “I’m not comfortable when [my work] is only one thing — like, if I make a joke in a work, I don’t want it to be just funny, I want it to all of a sudden be kind of sick, or touching. So I don’t want it to be just humorous, or just pretty, I want also for it to be sick and repulsive.”
Altmejd, however, is careful to qualify these terms. “I’m really sensitive to gore. I find it really repulsive. I like the idea of decay, but I don’t like the idea of gore. So for me, it’s really important that the object is able to find a way of decaying, but in an almost seductive kind of way.”
His overarching seemingly contradictory approach consciously works against any direct interpretation. Altmejd doesn’t talk of the meaning of his work, he talks about its energy — the prime concern in Altmejd’s universe. “Energy is just what makes something alive,” he says. “For example, the gold chains that travel through the work, I see it as nerves that carry energy through the body and through the piece. And where there are crystals growing on the body, it suggests a transformation or growth that’s energetic. And decomposition, that also suggests a change. Werewolves suggest a transformation also, and there’s an energy related to that. So in a way, I’m shoving everything that could suggest energy [into the work] so at the end I can just step back and I can feel like the whole piece is a living organism.”
Altmejd seems to take the Pygmalion ideal as the driving force of his practice. He creates a queer fantasy world out of clay, fibreglass, mirrors and glitter, expecting nothing less than some kind of alchemical transformation, that the finished work will somehow come alive. He’s incredibly successful at this. Interpretation seems besides the point with Altmejd’s work. His best sculptures confront you as would living things, and your interaction with them is not on the abstract, intellectual level that characterizes most art-viewing, but on the level of one living being to another.
Spooning werewolves sounds like a hilariously camp idea and a theoretically interesting queering of horror and fairytale genres, but being in the same room as them has the same emotional impact as seeing the ashen, lava-preserved remains of a Pompeian corpse. All this talk of energy might seem twee and flighty, but there’s no denying the profound wallop of Altmejd’s work.
“The energy exists inside the object, but that’s what makes the relationship to the object interesting. It’s like relating to a body or a living organism. I like the idea that my thing will still be alive, even if there’s no one around to see it.”