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David Altmejd: People Either Love Me Or Hate Me

One of the wildest gallery shows we saw in 2014 was David Altmejd‘s at Andrea Rosen Gallery in New York. It was a sprawling, explosive, messy, and grotesque installation that was magnificently contained in a reflected, refracted, and tidy grid of vitrines. Whitewall‘s winter 2015 Luxury Issue, out now, features a story on the artist, based off a conversation writer Julie Baumgardner had with him right after the completion of the installation. Here’s a look at what’s in the mag:


Courtesy of Chrome Hearts

David Altmejd
By Julie Baumgardner
Photos by Steve Benisty 

People have a lot of ideas about David Altmejd. That he’s obsessed with the grotesque, controlling, set in his ways. In fact, though Altmejd’s complex architectural sculptures are a detailed maze of private worlds devised of dismembered body parts, taxidermy animals, mirrors, fruits, insects, and much more, “I’m not a stuck-up person. I’m not uptight,” he says. “Maybe I give the impression that I work lightly, but I’m very focused on what I’m working on.” Like all artists seriously committed to the task of artmaking, Altmejd maintains that his work isn’t personal. “I don’t see my work as being expressive,” he says, “but I don’t see it as the making of something coming just from me, because I don’t know why that would be interesting.”

Photo by Steve Benisty

He is driven by intellect but not distracted by theory, and the top curators have been waiting for the right time to introduce his exquisitely difficult, self-contained sculptures to their curious crowds. (Hint: That time is now.) Their acquisition committees, on the other hand, have long approved: The Whitney Museum in New York, as well as the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, LACMA, the Dallas Museum of Art, and the National Gallery of Canada (his country of birth) all have selected his work for their coffers.

Altmejd’s sculptural worlds have accrued various tropes, as he has worked with certain motifs—“Giants,” “Body Builders,” “Watchers”—since the early 2000s, when he signed with Andrea Rosen, who remains his gallerist to this day. Yet, whether intentionally or ironically, the 40-year-old Toronto-born, Manhattan-based artist draws from the personal, quite literally. Altmejd’s visual vocabulary consists of hulking figures, disembodied heads, hands, and feet, instantly recognizable for their fantastical nature rendered in resin, acrylic, or other synthetics painted in vivid pastel colors. Entombed in Plexiglas boxes, impaled on iron stakes, or merely arranged on display surfaces, they “contain infinity,” as he explains. They traditionally all take shape from his own form. “I use a lot of casts and it was very important to me that they were mine,” he says, of a process he began developing while he was working toward his MFA at Columbia.

Photo by Steve Benisty

However, in his most recent show with Rosen, in February 2014, Altmejd debuted a new work, Flux and the Puddle, which in its sheer magnitude signaled a shift not only in his career, but in his precise process. It’s a vast Plexiglas vitrine, an airtight box containing humanoid-figures in various stages of completion, shards of mirror, fluorescent lights, and radioactive fruit. These items are “of the brain as being a sort of structure that contains hidden spaces, corridors, screens where images are projected. Then there’s a little hole and little corridor, an infinite one that leads to darker space,” he says.

It’s not the internal tableau in Flux and the Puddle that points to an evolution in his practice, as Altmejd has long worked with vitrines. His breakthrough work, The Index, was “a significant new direction in contemporary art,” said David Moos, former curator of the Art Gallery of Ontario, which acquired the piece after its debut at the 2007 Venice Biennale. This time around, Altmejd had to branch out—Flux and the Puddle was such an undertaking that five others filled in as models. “I was just working with male figures because of what I am and what I desired,” the artist says—though his homosexuality has never been a point of personal contention nor a theme in his work. “Now I just feel like for the work to evolve, it’s nice if it’s more inclusive and complex,” he adds. Likewise, the piece swallowed his Long Island City studio completely, with only a foot or so of space in which he and his assistants could navigate around the room. “I had to make most of the work inside the work itself,” he says. “So it became kind of my studio.”

Photo by Steve Benisty

The work’s significance is layered: It exists both as the nucleus of his command center set up for viewers to peer inside, but is itself a retrospective of his canon. “I never get rid of materials. I don’t just use them for a year and then that’s it,” Altmejd explains. “I just build up a bank of materials—that piece, they’re all in it: every material I’ve used since I started being a sculptor.” That it’s a self-reflective archive (it ain’t just the mirrors) was not lost on museum curators who ache for such work to light up their halls. It’s hardly any wonder that that the Museum of Modern Art of the City of Paris, nestled deep within the eastern wing of the Palais de Tokyo, has staged his first major survey, which opened on October 10 and runs through February 2015. Nearly 60 of Altmejd’s sculptures have been included in the exhibition, which hinges around Flux and the Puddle but also has devoted sections to his stand-alone statues, from The Giant (2006) to the plaster, Hellenistic art–steeped Untitled 5 (The Watchers) (2011), and even to his hollow-faced adaptation of his sister, Sarah (2003). Though his sororal portrait may suggest a sense of violence, Altmejd insists, “I started digging into the face to make a black hole that would look like it was infinite. I was really lost . . . in the hole.”

Altmejd is famous for being a process artist. “I test things inside of an object,” he says. “Risks, tests, failures, if all that’s contained in one object, it gives it a lot of power.” And power is what Altmejd seeks in his own practice. “I don’t think art is inherently powerful. I just think that it has that potential,” he says. With his shy but affable way, he would probably never admit to such a description, but his role as an artist is to unlock that potential. What he does say to such a question is, “I’ve always expected a lot from sculpture.” Altmejd revels in the contradictions. “I don’t necessarily feel I exist unless I feel a tension, I feel my presence in the world,” he explains, keenly aware that “these tensions generate energy,” therefore obfuscating his own personal and artistic narratives. “People either love me or hate me. That sounds obnoxious,” he says, wavering. “But I wouldn’t want to be liked by everyone.”


This story was first published in Whitewall‘s winter 2015 Luxury Issue.




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