Installation view, Enrico David: Gradations of Slow Release, MCA Chicago (photo by Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago)

CHICAGO — For Enrico David, art is about the discovery that takes place in the process of working his materials by hand. “My approach to making work,” he says in a short documentary video, “is definitely about bringing myself to places I know very little about. So my relationship to these objects, or to these figures, is quite unknown to me.” This approach is evident in his first US museum survey, Gradations of Slow Release at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, curated by Michael Darling. David, who moves freely between sculpture, drawing, and textiles, often begins with a technical problem: the question of how to make a figure stand, for example, can produce a set of gestures — sometimes, he says, “a whole cast of characters emerge.” Revisiting facial and bodily expressions and gestures, as well as materials from his previous works, the artist establishes an intimate relationship with his works, allowing him to ask of the evolving image or object: “what is it trying to do?”

Installation view, Enrico David: Gradations of Slow Release, MCA Chicago (photo by Hyperallergic)

Although David has likened his creative process to, “a spell,” or “blind faith that something will make its own sphere of energy,” he is a formidable craftsman. His commitment to craft encompasses a wide range of media: he is a skilled and sensitive draughtsman; a painter with a fine eye for color; and an excellent textile artist, especially in tapestry. He works in marquetry and his sculpture — often figural at its root, no matter how distorted — shows exemplary technique, especially in Jesmonite.

Evidently, this commitment runs in the family: David’s mother was a dressmaker, his father a furniture maker, his sister designs fabric, and his brother works leather. Yet his intuitive process and his attraction to figuration imbue his works with a totemic or fetishistic sensibility. In the wool tapestry “Evenly Suspended Attention IV” (2004), a figure both humanoid and curiously bee-like hovers against a powerfully rhythmic red and black background. It manifests as both alien and strangely familiar, conjuring tribal arts. The image proved compelling enough for David to reprise it a year later, in “Sodulater” (2005), this time as a small sculptural assemblage of copper, wood, paper, and paint. The shift in medium renders the image even more totemic and haunting.

Installation view, Enrico David: Gradations of Slow Release, MCA Chicago (photo by Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago)

Similarly haunting is “Untitled” (2017) a small Jesmonite head attached to a stick figure made of metal wire and hair, held in wire grid embedded in large white rubber screen. It seems both helpless and serene, like the Paul Klee’s 1920 monoprint “Angelus Novus,” the image that inspired Walter Benjamin’s reflections on the Angel of History from his 1940 essay On the Concept of History. Another Jesmonite face dominates the sculpture“Restless” (2017), in which brass wires and organic fronds compose a horizontal form that recalls with minimal means the architecture of the human body. In this work, the face seems to express agony, despair, and pain.

Installation view, Enrico David: Gradations of Slow Release, MCA Chicago (photo by Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago)

Much of David’s figural work evokes a kind of narrative. “The Assumption of Weee” (2014), for example, shows a standing figure, with an array of similar figures fanned out behind it. The figures appear to be either collapsing backward or rising forward; they read collectively as a strange and fecund proliferation of bodies. Their cowl-like headdresses hint at Dante’s spiritual drama, though the work never resolves into anything like an allegory. This sense of mystery pervades David’s work, in which a rich language of symbols suggests, rather than defines, paths of possible interpretation. His is the kind of art Jung had in mind when he spoke of those artists who open themselves to what emerges in the process of making: from such artists, says Jung, “we would expect a strangeness of form and content, thoughts that can only be apprehended intuitively, a language pregnant with meanings.” David echoes Jung’s language, saying that for him, “the daily practice of making work functions as an exercise to reveal something that feels and looks unknown, but in reality is simply neglected.”

Enrico David: Gradations of Slow Release, organized by Michael Darling, James W. Alsdorf Chief Curator continues at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (220 East Chicago Ave., Chicago, Illinois) through March 10.

Robert Archambeau is a poet and critic whose books include The Kafka Sutra, The Poet Resigns: Poetry in a Difficult Time, Inventions of a Barbarous Age: Poetry from Conceptualism to Rhyme Home and Variations,...