Monday, June 18, 2007

David Altmejd

David Altmejd is representing Canada at the Venice Biennale, and as far at the Globe & Mail is concerned, he's causing quite a stir. I had the pleasure of seeing Altmejd's work while in Montreal last month and was not so impressed. But, I wasn't seeing it in Venice. Nor was I seeing it at The Andrea Rosen Gallery in Chelsea. I was seeing it in Montreal, in a too-large room with very poor lighting and very, very drab carpeting.

David Altmejd’s contributions to the Venice Biennale are The Index and The Giant 2. The latter, as Sarah Milroy describes, is a large human figure:
whose body cavities have fallen in, seemingly in an advanced state of decay. Where rot has set in, crystals erupt. His arms and legs sprout a variety of vegetation and moss, and his penis lolls to one side like a great scoop of half-melted vanilla ice cream.
She goes on to assure us that, "If our nation still had a reputation for excessive modesty and politeness, I think we can consider it dispatched." I'm not sure that Altmejd is the first Canadian artist to work so boldly (Atilla Lukas anyone?), and I can't agree with Milroy's claim that he has
created an imaginary erotic realm that is extraordinarily intense and entirely his own. (In this regard, the American artist Matthew Barney, who is showing this summer at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection on Venice's Grand Canal, may be his only living contender.)
In fact these installations, or sculptures (or as one critic points out, what looks to be "parade floats"), each decorated with fake flora and fauna as well as half man half animal creatures, are of the moment. Half human characters (bird girls, eagle men, etc.) are everywhere. Altmejd's work reminds me more of Jessica Stockholder than Kiki Smith or Louise Bourgeois, or someone like Brian Jungen (who I would love to see represent Canada at the Biennale!).

In any case, I have the same problem with Altmejd's work as I do with Jessica Stockholder's--and that is the extreme seam. They are both sculptors who want the audience to get splints. The work is so unpolished that it often seems, well, just way too thrown together. While not every artist has to be as clean as someone like Jungen, once you've seen the kind of precision possible you really want to know why an artist is going to such lengths to be that prickly, that--I almost said fragmented but it's not at all fragmented. Fragmented would have more purpose. Nor is it broken down, it's... Well, I think it's "ugly," but again, not ugly in a way that I can understand as saying something, or evoking any kind of meaning.

"Altmejd uses mirrors to amplify and complicate the scattered horror," writes one reviewer, and I can see how the artist might be thinking that, but no, I didn't experience the work that way at all. He doesn't want cohesion, but that's a word, and a concept that I suppose means something more cohesive to me than it should. I tend to think of cohesion as not necessarily unified. You can have a sculptor--someone like Eva Hesse--who is looking at imperfection as much repetition and variation, and there will be a kind of cohesion. Or someone like Robert Smithson, or Kiki Smith for that matter. There was a show at Metro Pictures recently that did this as well. Look, Rauschenberg did this with his Combines, people are doing this all over the place.

The work is the work, I just resist claims of genius and star and "out of the blue," when someone is clearly working in and of a moment, and not--it seems to this viewer in any case--not in a particularly shocking way. But then perhaps I would feel differently had I seen the show in a more compelling setting. Say Venice?

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