PARIS — Young New York–based Canadian artist David Altmejd’s remarkably ambitious retrospective exhibition of sculpture at the Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris played pithily with many current intellectual strands — anthropomorphism, dematerialization, science fiction, internet culture, artificial life, image profusion, and micro-organisms. But what struck me as most exact about its weird, vitriolic propositions was its deep reflection (one might even say brooding) on proliferation and loss.
The ripe delirium of Altmejd’s “The Builders” (2005), which opened the show, offered a kind of unconstrained, reproductive, and distributive graphology with its ambivalent notion of tumbling plethora. This assemblage piece was followed by a series of huge, elaborately bizarre, whimsical figures in the grotesque and mannerist traditions that showed a deep and circular interaction with fantasy literature. This was most pronounced in the clunky but impressive “La Palette” (2014), and in “Untitled 8 (Bodybuilders)” (2013), which, for me, seemed too slushy and specious for much intellectual benefit. They tried too hard to get a gnarly reaction out of me and, as such, were not particularly compelling, even as these figurative work displayed a mordantly witty obsession with the sumptuously physical language of sculpture in terms of assembly and fusion. But at its worst, such as “abcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxyz” (2013) and “Man 2” (2014), there was an art school Surrealism 101 vibe to the work.
These and other towering figures were assembled out of visibly distinct and disjunctive parts. For example, “abcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxyz” was constructed out of what looked to be bananas. The imposing sculptures were then were set in a row in a series of huge, mirrored galleries. This pleasingly enhanced their retinal quality, while reminding me of a department store display.
But upon seeing Altmejd’s virtuoso vitrine tableaux of mirrored accumulation, like “Untitled” (2009), “The Swarm” (2011), and “The Flux and the Puddle” (2014), one immediately felt a sense of sinister and humorous proliferation presented as psychedelic glamor. An aptitude for creepy amusement lurked behind these works, as well as a longing borne of cultural amnesia — tapping into our experience of encountering (and losing) wildly disjunctive data on the internet.
“The Swarm,” a technosphere abuzz with winged bees, plaster ears coupled to look like butterflies, floating pin-cushion heads, and much pastel filament, displayed anthropomorphic tendencies and organizational patterns of becoming. Here, Altmejd elevated ornamentation from the realm of mere exterior decoration and into an expression of living in perpetual hyperawareness. I situated its complex mutation logic alongside Fantasy and Visionary artists such as H. R. Giger, Ernst Fuchs, and Gilles Barbier. But “The Swarm” also evoked a nimble refraction of femininity, using pastel colors, thread, and needles to create a floating visual labyrinth that brought to sculpture a certain ripe sense of pliability that I usually associate with biology.
Now abundant accumulation in sculpture is nothing new. One need only recall the work of French sculptor César, or, more recently, Joel Otterson. But taken as a whole, Altmejd’s vitrine pieces delivered an added airy reach by tying together methods of restless grid formality with a visceral swamp of camp irony for an overall effect that was at turns annoyingly hip and flamboyantly outrageous. For example, his sublime gesamtkunstwerk of metamorphosis, “The Flux and The Puddle,” mixed dreamy ideals of flamboyance with a hard materialistic sensationalism that demanded my aesthetic contemplation.
This huge work seemed to both sanctify and physically embody the ephemerality of digital information and the flickering of its translucent excess. The viewer had to toil devotedly to solve the ad infinitum mirrored visual conundrums supplied by the work. She had to contribute mental transitions between its diverse assortments of mirrored sculptural elements. She had to fabricate a vague fairy tale out of this grisly, mirrored mélange.
The kind of stimulating conceptual discernment proffered by Altmejd’s vitrine sculptures generally involves a repetitive, intertwining visual logic that ensnares the eye. “The Flux and The Puddle” has obvious traits in common with Lucas Samaras’s “Room No. 2” (1966) and Christian Megert‘s “Mirror Environment” (1968). It also recalls Yayoi Kusama’s mirrored room installations, which give the feeling of an expansive immersion in infinity.
Like Kusama’s “Fireflies on the Water” (2002), the delicate, graceful pleasure of “The Flux and the Puddle” was that it enabled a deep dive into our casual culture of instant gratification by exploring the possibilities of infinite multiplication. This offered the viewer an artistic contrivance akin to being freed of corporal form, suspended in an ecstasy of shattered sight. As such, Altmejd’s suggestive, optical, and conceptual ornamentation is almost mesmeric. This sense of his works being simultaneously multiple and unified found a different articulation in the sculpture “The University 1” (2004), which transmitted power, energy, and anxiety through its labyrinthine extensions, duplications, and refractions.
The second half of Flux provided me with a form of flamboyant indulgence in perceptual stimulation that might be dismissed as superfluous by some. But I think today it is pivotal in understanding our all-encompassing electronic media culture. The enthusiastic impertinence of Altmejd’s work conceptually connected me to ideas about decentralized modes of distribution typical of zombie capitalism in a way that was as pleasurable to see as it was constructive to ponder.
David Altmejd: Flux ran October 10, 2014–February 1, 2015 at the Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris. It will be at the MUDAM in Luxembourg March 7–May 31, and at the Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art June 18–September 13.