Taking over the 9,800-square-foot Brant Foundation Art Study Center in Greenwich, Conn., Canadian sculptor David Altmejd has staged a kind of beautiful, nightmarish, campy creation myth, Nov. 5, 2011-Apr., 2012. Piles of coconuts collect in corners like furry cosmic eggs. A crudely cobbled angel stands on a sunlit pedestal. Glittering werewolf heads in varying states of transformation lie on the floor. Plaster hands tear open and emerge from walls and canvases.
It’s a pregnant universe, where everything is becoming something else, and Altmejd is the mad alchemist orchestrating it all. On one of a pair of 12-foot foam giants, haphazardly assembled as if they were Mr. Potatoheads -- a cartoonishly large ear stuck here, a lumpy hand there -- resin replicas of Altmejd’s own hands claw at the face, maybe forming it, maybe destroying it.
Yet 37-year-old Altmejd, the third artist to have a solo show at the collector and publishing magnate’s museum, says he’s not particularly interested in mythology or religion (he is Jewish, but never practiced). From his Long Island City studio the other day, he explained, in a Québécois accent, that he studied biology before going to art school, and science remains the lifeblood of his practice. The symbolism of the works, “the meaning,” he said, “comes from matter.”
For instance, once when he was sculpting a figure he recalls how “my hands just grabbed plaster from the calf and dragged it up—I always have a tendency to go up because in sculpture you’re kind of working against gravity—and the plaster accumulated on the back and it ended up making wings,” he said, jumping from his chair to demonstrate the gesture in the air. “I wouldn’t have tried to do that, I’m not into angels or anything, but I think it’s amazing that the simple process of working with the material ends up giving birth to figures that have been there since the Egyptians.”
Brant began collecting Altmejd’s work after seeing the artist’s massive aviary-like installation The Index at the 2007 Venice Biennale. A few years later, Brant offered Altmejd the exhibition. “I immediately just started focusing on the walls and floors and materials and how I was going to pull it off,” Altmejd said. “I’m kind of like an ant -- I start small.”
To picture the context in his own terms, he reimagined the space, a two-level brick barn-turned-gallery, as a body. He covered a room near the entrance in shattered mirrors, turning it into place of reflection, like the inside of a head. Within that, a deeper, darker room houses one of his plexiglass vitrines, an intricate system of threads that evokes neural circuitry. The main cathedral-height gallery is the structure’s chest, where he installed the most humanoid figures. And the library at the exit, the only room with windows, looks out over Brant’s rolling green polo fields like a set of eyes.
The exhibition’s not organized chronologically, but it functions a bit like a mini-retrospective. There’s a 50-50 mix of new works, like the figurative sculptures and an installation of smashed mirrors, and old ones -- all owned by Brant -- such as the vitrines shown at Andrea Rosen Gallery earlier this year. Nothing in the exhibition is currently for sale.
The show opened on a crisp fall Saturday, with appearances by Alberto Mugrabi, Mary-Kate Olsen and Tom Wolfe, and now Altmejd has returned to his studio in New York. He’s been preparing for an exhibition at Stuart Shave Modern Art in London next year and is embarking on a new series of portraits, which he hopes will “give a new kind of intimacy to my sculptures.”
He doesn’t know yet whether they’ll take the form of heads or busts or seated figures, maybe he’ll use bronze or maybe a combination of materials. What he’s sure of, however, is that he wants to schedule proper sittings with his subjects -- friends, assistants, family members and anyone with the physical features he’s attracted to, such as strong noses. The result may or may not be realistic, but either way Altmejd seems to be inching toward animating his creations even closer to his own image.