David Altmejd is as much a Frankenstein figure as he is an artist, activating his sculptural creatures with an undeniable life force that leaves them forming new shapes independently unto themselves, or at least so it appears. The Montreal-born sculptor works in the space between flesh and crystal, where body parts, raw matter and mythical lore ooze, collide, drip, shoot out and melt together.
An average Altmejd work will contain a flurry of materials including things like synthetic hair, leather shoes, mirror, glass eyes, sequin, synthetic flowers, feathers, steel, coconuts and burlap. The ingredients are served up in dizzying, fractured arrangements that spew new forms from every angle. Things come together and fall apart before your eyes, all within the glittering confines of a plexiglass box. Floating fruits, lone limbs, werewolves, branches and shattered glass stretch the transformative nature of materials in every way possible.
Looking upon an Altmejd work, you get the feeling the entire world and all its stories are jammed into a single space, jutting out in all directions. Needless to say, it's far from your average gallery experience. We reached out to Altmejd to learn more about his upcoming exhibition at Andrea Rosen Gallery.
Detail of:The Flux and The Puddle
Tell me about the title of your upcoming exhibition and where that comes from.
The show is called "Juices." In the last couple of years I've been integrating a lot of fruit into my work. There are points where those fruits started dripping and formed juices. The juices are only one step in the process of transformation. I'll give you an example of how it works in my head. There is a fruit, the fruit drips, the juices accumulate, traverse the piece, gather in one corner of the piece, and transform into some kind of gelatinous matter that is used to create objects. Grapes, for example -- the juice coming from the grapes flows through the piece, accumulates in the opposite corner, and transforms into gelatinous matter that can be used as a gel to produce new grapes. There is this cycle. Juices are only one step in the whole transformative process. I was really interested in juices formally also, as something that drips. I wanted to draw attention to that liquid physicality.
To clarify, you're using real fruits in your sculptures?
No, no, they're all made in the studio. Most of them are cast from real fruits. Some of them look very realistic, some of them look cartoony, but they're all made in the studio. So the juices that are coming out are almost all resin.
Many of your other sculptures seem to come alive as if they're mythical creatures or animals. Can that still happen when you're dealing with fruit as a subject matter?
The piece doesn't completely center around fruit. My idea was to make my newest piece contain everything, everything I have ever done in sculpture. So there are some characters in there, some mythical creatures, some heads, some thread, plexiglass, mirrors, holes -- juices are just one part of the whole thing. My goal was to integrate everything that I had done before and try to find the harmony there, making everything interact with one another.
Detail of:The Flux and The Puddle
You've spoken about the exhibition space as a body that's integrated into your sculptures. How does that play into your current show?
In this show I really wanted the main piece to contain everything, so it's not so much about the space. In this case the shape of the space determined the size and shape of the sculpture. It's really a self-contained piece; everything is contained in this gigantic plexiglass box. There are architectural elements in the work -- staircases, doorways, channels, halls, walls -- but they're all inside the piece itself. At the end I want to create the effect that the piece itself is creating objects that are shooting out of it and going through the walls. That's the connection with the architecture.
Is it important for you to always transform the experience people expect from a gallery? For example, the white walls and display cases.
Yes, it's crucial. The idea of creating an experience that people have never had before. The idea of the new or the surprise is very, very important to me. Personally I think I get my most meaningful experiences when I am surprised or impressed by something I've never seen before.
Looking back, are there certain fears or dreams from your childhood that you think are influencing your work now?
No, nothing. People think that often, but whatever is dreamlike in my work is actually just a result of the process. What I am most interested in is being a sculptor, relating to material and dealing with space. These weird dreamlike subject matters, like the werewolf, come into the work because they offer me an interesting way of dealing with matter. For example, I've been working on a series I call "Body Builders." I was interested in working on a figure that could reshape itself with its own hands, taking matter from one part of the body and displacing it to another part of the body. For example, taking its own hand and dragging matter from its thigh to its head to make a bigger head. That's why the "Body Builders" exist in my work. When I introduced the werewolf it was because I was very interested in a body that would be able to include the most intense contrasts and tensions. A body that would be able to suggest transformation. Those are all very sculptural preoccupations and that's the reason I brought these different mythical creatures or dreamlike references into the work. Because of the possibility of exploring different sculptural problems within them.
Juices, Installation View
Do you think this transformation you're talking about in relation to materials also applies to humans, the energy within them, and their capabilities to change?
Yes, I think that unconsciously that's my model. What I think is the most powerful thing about sculpture is the fact that it exists in real life. It doesn't exist in the space of representation, whatever the sculpture is -- whether it's abstract or representational. It's always an object that exists in the same space as you, that breathes the same air as you. There is something potentially very powerful about that. The most powerful object in the whole world is the human body, more specifically, the body of the person you love or the person you hate. I'm using the body as a model, unconsciously or not.
You've spoken about a point at which you let go of your sculptures and they have an energy of their own. Can you describe what this feels like or how you know when a piece is ready to be on its own?
When I realize the piece has become something more than I could have imagined, when I feel I've lost control. Whatever is in the piece, there comes a point when it feels like it came from the piece and not from me. The piece has become independent and has its own intelligence. It is actually generating an energy or saying things that are not coming from me. I guess it's like a parent and a kid. The child comes from you and you take care of him when you're young. You make sure he stays healthy and you teach him basics and politeness and how to count and read. And then it becomes something completely independent and all you can do is just sit back and look, fascinated.
"Juices" will be on view until March 8, 2014 at Andrea Rosen Gallery in New York.