Published  12/01/2023

David Altmejd

David Altmejd

The Canadian sculptor welcomes visitors to his uncanny menagerie, filled with human-hare hybrids, creatures with multiple faces and disembodied mouths

David Altmejd, White Cube Mason's Yard. © the artist. Photo © White Cube (Ollie Hammick).

White Cube Mason’s Yard, London
23 November 2022 – 21 January 2023


David Altmejd (b1974, Montreal) does not just create his bizarre characters. They force themselves out of him. The Canadian sculptor says: “I start making something and then at one point in the process I can feel the object has its own intelligence and makes its own choices. In the end, I feel like the object has made itself and I just helped it make itself.”

The first work one encounters at Altmejd’s new White Cube exhibition certainly seems to have a will of its own. It is an enormous male figure with the snout and ears of a hare. Before it sits a tiny hole, as if it has burrowed out of the ground. This creature kneels in a yogic pose, legs crossed, arms laid down as if about to meditate. Its ears rise to about three times its height. At the top, they are white and violet and blue, as if frozen in the cold. The rest of his body is a sickly grey-green. It is emaciated, with a visible rib cage. Some parts of his torso, including a shoulder, seem to be squashed on to the whole, as if patching up a wound. Even stranger, his back features what looks like a column of buttons. If you undid them, would he fall back into ooze?

David Altmejd. The Vector, 2022. Expanding foam, epoxy, acrylic paint, resin, glass eyes, coloured pencil, pencil, fibreglass, glass rhinestone and wood, 397 × 182 × 182 cm (156 5/16 × 71 5/8 × 71 5/8 in). © the artist. Photo: © White Cube.

Hares play many roles in mythology. The Algonquin tribe of Native Americans, based in Canada, gave the Great Hare a part in the construction of the world. The Celts believed hares had a connection to the afterlife. This one seems to serve as a gatekeeper and guardian of Altmejd’s bizarre world, one inhabited by hybrid creatures and fragmented bodies inspired by fantasy, science fiction and surrealism. To view his work is to enter an uncanny valley. His figures are almost perfect representations of plausible human figures. But not quite. There is always something off. The results are sometimes hilarious, sometimes terrifying, often both.

Altmejd is a skilled sculptor. He was educated at the Université du Québec à Montréal and Columbia University. He uses expanding foam, epoxy and acrylic paint to create flesh, facial features and forms that resemble those encountered in reality. But, more often than not, he morphs them. Even the most apparently straightforward of his pieces has something askew: the most conventionally human figure at the White Cube, for instance, has holes where his ears should be. Some, like the aforementioned hare-man, are chimeras. Others have expressionistic globules appended to the surface of their skin, or strange materials grafted on to their bodies. Frequently, they are rendered in a sickly grey-green or purple pallor that suggests rot, as if we have encountered them midway through decomposition – rather like a subtler, three-dimensional Glenn Brown.

David Altmejd. Rising, 2022. Expanding foam, epoxy, acrylic paint, latex paint, coloured pencil, pencil, steel and wood, 77.7 x 24.1 x 33 cm (30 9/16 x 9 1/2 x 13 in). © the artist. Photo: © White Cube (David Westwood).

In the past, Altmejd has placed his sculptures within disorientating installations. His work for the Canadian Pavilion at the 2007 Venice Biennale, The Index, was a spiralling glass and wood house populated with mythical creatures; his 2014 work The Flux and the Puddle is an immense Plexiglass structure filled with werewolves, disembodied heads, plants and much else, a sort of contemporary cabinet of curiosities. Altmejd’s objects and beings were suspended, trapped, sometimes even dismembered into separate parts. This transparent labyrinth felt like an analogy for an overly connected, overly stimulated electronic world, where things become merely nodes in a network.

David Altmejd, White Cube Mason's Yard. © the artist. Photo © White Cube (Ollie Hammick).

At the White Cube, Altmejd’s sculptures stand for themselves, arranged on points around the gallery’s large basement space. But there is a hint of a larger plan at work. There are mouseholes in the gallery’s walls and plinths, and tiny piles of droppings on the floor. Just as Altmejd’s sculptures often seem as if they have been subject to a process of decay, the gallery in which they are shown has been subject to abandonment.

David Altmejd, 2022. Expanding foam, epoxy, acrylic paint, glass rhinestones, quartz, coloured pencil, pencil, steel and wood, 76.2 x 40.6 x 38.1 cm (30 x 16 x 15 in). © the artist. Photo: © White Cube (Theo Christelis).

The hare upstairs has several cousins below. Many of Altmejd’s new works have leporine features. Altmejd relates the hare to Carl Jung’s archetype of the Trickster, a remnant of our ancestral memories. One, Hare (2022), could be taken as a bust portrait of a real-world animal, were it not for its pastel colour palette. Some of them are goofier. One has the face of a Looney Tunes character, with a brown moustache painted on its cheeks and a toothbrush in its hand. It also has a second, upside-down mouth in its forehead whose teeth it has been struggling to brush, as evidenced by the nurdle of toothpaste it has misapplied to its ears.

David Altmejd. Dusk, 2022. Expanding foam, epoxy, acrylic paint, latex paint, quartz, coloured pencil, pencil, steel and wood, 61 x 43.2 x 25.4 cm (24 x 17 x 10 in). © the artist. Photo: © White Cube (David Westwood).

Others are more sinister. There is a strange sadness to Dusk (2022), a hybrid rabbit-man with imploring eyes. Another work consists of a blue-tinged human chin, neck and mouth, as if it has been violently ripped off a face. The mouth is agape in what might be a scream of pain or a howl of pleasure; it reminds me of Alina Szapocznikow’s severed lips and breasts, although without the pathos of the late Polish artist’s work. The hostile face of The Man and the Whale (2022) is topped by ears that contain bony protrusions and squiggly organs. But the feature I find the most disquieting is the hair. One hare-woman has a shocking brunette fringe dipping between her ears. A rabbit man sprouts mutton chops. The softness of hair feels particularly jarring coming out of the cold flesh.

David Altmejd. The Man and the Whale, 2022. Expanding foam, epoxy, glass eyes, acrylic paint, coloured pencil, steel, concrete and wood, overall: 174.6 × 60 × 57.3 cm (68 3/4 × 23 5/8 × 22 9/16 in). © the artist. Photo: © White Cube (Theo Christelis).

Several of Altmejd’s sculptures have more than one face on the same head, as if they have been caught during a rapid movement. Although cartoonish, they also visualise the psychoanalytic idea that beings have multiple layers, conscious and unconscious. “One way that sculpture can function like a body,” he has said, “is to suggest that it contains an infinite space. That’s specific about the human body. The mind is infinite. And the outside space is actually finite.” At their best, Altmejd’s part-humans seem to contain something beyond their material forms.

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