b. 1974, Montreal
David Altmejd was born in 1974 in Montreal. He earned a BFA from the Université du Québec in Montreal (1998) and an MFA from Columbia University in New York (2001). Galerie SKOL in Montreal hosted his first solo exhibition in 1998. With a repertoire of incongruous elements (handcrafted werewolf heads and limbs, Stars of David, crystals, mirrors, fake hair, junk jewelry), Altmejd fashions intricate sculptural environments that call to mind miniature stage sets, museum dioramas, architectural models, and reliquaries. “I am interested in complexity as a form,” he has remarked. To this end, he relies on intuition rather than intention when constructing his multimedia constellations. Mining the labyrinth of the unconscious, his work resists coherent narratives.
Since the beginning of his career, Altmejd has investigated sculpture’s potential to “create energy.” In his early work, he grappled with this problem in a literal manner. Bouquet No. 4 (1997) consists of two synthetic flowers wired to motors and mounted on the wall. When activated, the blooms gyrate. Table No. 2 (1998) was similarly conceived; three women’s wigs strewn atop a table and wired to a motor vibrate as the electric current flows. Laying Out Energies (1998) comprises a table on which sit various quartz crystals mounted on small, immaculate white bases, a Walkman, two pairs of headphones, and an old-fashioned tape recorder emitting groans of pleasure and pain.
In 2000, Altmejd began to sculpt isolated heads and other body parts of werewolves. Indebted less to B movies than to nineteenth-century gothic tales like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) and Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), these works extend his interest in sculptural energy, referencing the entropy implicit in the mythical transformation from human to beast. Furthermore, the werewolf symbolizes a host of classic oppositions—human and animal, good and evil, life and death, beauty and abjection—all of which the artist embraces but refuses to resolve. In Werewolf No. 1 (2000) and Werewolf No. 2 (2001), the first of his works to explore this theme, grotesque, minutely rendered heads (along with a foot and hand in the latter) are isolated within large boxed enclosures. The first has faux gems embedded in its skull, like a venerated relic, while the second sprouts crystals.
In recent years, Altmejd’s work has become increasingly complex and architectural, integrating even more disparate components. The Old Sculptor (2003) presents an elaborate ziggurat structure of mirrored panels surrounded by handmade birds, plastic flowers, costume jewels, and a sculpted representation of the bearded, severed head of an elderly man—the sculptor in question. Delicate Men in Positions of Power (2003), first exhibited at the 2003 Istanbul Bienali, comprises three rectangular black platforms of varying heights on which stand an open-latticed square construction reminiscent of sculptural works by Sol LeWitt, a collection of crystals, plastic flora, Stars of David, and other small, sparkling dime-store trinkets. Altmejd’s sculptural structures, suggesting Modernist buildings by the likes of Mies van der Rohe, often include mirror-covered cavities in which parts of dismembered werewolf carcasses are displayed (University 1, 2004). When one peeks inside these recesses, the seemingly decaying body parts and their numerous, distorted reflections unsettle. For the 2007 Venice Biennale, Altmejd created a darkly surreal installation of mirrors, stalagmites, weeds, impaled half-creatures, spindly pine trees and a life-size figure in a business suit whose head has been replaced with that of a bird, all of which seem suspended in continuous violent metamorphosis.
While Altmejd’s oeuvre examines the dark underbelly of the human imagination, beyond the haunting gore and monstrosity lies profound hopefulness. Out of death and decomposition, signified by the werewolf’s ubiquitous presence, emanate life and regeneration. “I see my installations as organisms,” the artist has said. “I start making something but at a certain point it starts making choices by itself.”
Solo exhibitions of Altmejd’s work have been organized by Galerie Clark in Montreal (1998), Ten in One Gallery in New York (2002), Galerie Optica in Montreal (2003), Andrea Rosen Gallery in New York (2004 and 2008), Galerie Xavier Hufkens in Brussels (2005), Fundació La Caixa Museum in Barcelona (2007), and Fundament Foundation in Tilburg (2008). His work has appeared in Stimuli at the Maison de la Culture Frontenac in Montreal (1998), Demonclownmonkey at Artists Space in New York (2002), Istanbul Bienali (2003), Whitney Biennial (2004), Venice Biennale (2007), and Liverpool Biennial (2008). Altmejd lives and works in New York.