Employing an invented language of the human form that re-articulates heads, hands, ears, limbs, and sexual organs, David Altmejd’s figures present an assemblage of dispersed parts that give the impression of a body shattering and shuddering into being. In the process, the distance between the “real” and the “imagined” shrinks, making any difference between the two states somehow less consequential; they become more fluid, dream-like, mutually sympathetic. Intensely psychological in intent, as well as in the aggressive way they seem to come at you, Altmejd’s objects and installations are fueled by a kind of hysteria and the performance of pure fantasy, consisting of acts of repetition, reuse, omission, and what Freud called “displacement.” While realistic to an extreme, these casts of body parts are focused by their merger with the abstract and the conceptual, achieved through extreme interventions in the traditional working methods of sculpture and a use of materials that is nothing short of encyclopedic: Plexiglas, paints, dyes, resins, plaster, latex, bronze, mirrors, gold chain, plastic flowers, hardware cloth, and costume jewelry.
It’s hard to tell if we approach Altmejd’s objects or if they rise to meet us. Simultaneously passive and aggressive, grotesque and romantic, his work is freighted with cultural symbols, classical forms, sheer bravura, and what he refers to as “symbolic potential.” He creates a tense sculptural system invested in artifice, detail, and totality—either you develop a relationship with its intimate theatricality, or you can’t get past its brutal insistence.
Kay Whitney: Over the course of the past 20 years, you’ve made a lot of work, and very varied work, though there are thematic links. You’ve worked at a range of scales and within a variety of spaces and environments. I am not interested in questioning you about specific pieces; my goal is to get at your involvement with your work, your philosophy of it, what you think about, and how that turns into a material, physical engagement—how it all combines to create an object. Could you describe how your instincts determine your decisions, what evokes them, and how they are contained in your work?
David Altmejd: The most important thing about sculpture is that it exists in the same space as the viewer. It doesn’t exist in a state of re-presentation, like painting or photography . . .
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