With his installations of severed werewolf heads, taxidermied animals and decaying giants, sculptor David Altmejd certainly seems obsessed with the macabre. “A lot of people think that I’m really fascinated by death and morbidity, but I’m much more interested in life. I just think that things look more alive when they’re growing on top of what’s dead,” he says, bending his fingers to mimic blades of growing grass.
Polishing off a Diet Coke and grilled cheese sandwich in a bustling diner in New York’s Long Island City, the Montreal native is taking a break from his studio, where he’s been working on a monumental installation for the inaugural exhibition of the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver’s new building. Altmejd’s work, along with that of his fellow Columbia M.F.A. graduates Sue de Beer and Banks Violette, is often grouped under the moniker “neo-gothic.” But while decomposing flesh is a recurring motif in his fantastical, many-layered pieces, so is the idea of growth and regeneration. The 33-year-old was among the most talked-about artists at this year’s Venice Biennale, where he presented a phantasmagoric aviary of mutant birds (The Index, 2007) and the rotting body of an enormous creature (The Giant 2, 2007) in the Canadian pavilion.
“I think about decay not in a negative way, but in the sense of creating a space for things to start growing,” he explains. The furry, time-ravaged corpse of his giant, for instance, is full of holes and caverns inhabited by birds and squirrels. (Altmejd used taxidermied creatures he purchased on Ebay.) Meanwhile, crystals, plants and sparkling beads seem to be sprouting from the giant’s flesh, which is also punctured with shards of mirrored glass. The end result is something undoubtedly horrific but also strangely glamorous. “I try to make it seductive,” says Altmejd, who has arresting blue eyes, a slightly scruffy beard and a habit of accompanying his Quebecois-accented English with hand gestures.
Since 2002, when painter Matthew Ritchie included the artist in an attention-getting group show he curated at Artists Space, Altmejd’s sculptures have proved seductive to major institutions and collectors. The Guggenheim Museum owns an Altmejd, as do collector Dakis Joannou, the Hessel Museum of Art and the Vanhaerents Art Collection in Brussels. “Although a few comparisons were made between our work at the time, David’s sculpture has always been a unique and uncanny vision,” says Ritchie, “a series of gorgeous physical and mental ruptures in conventional reality.”
The Guggenheim’s chief curator, Nancy Spector, compares the rising talent to one of the contemporary art world’s reigning stars. “David has a really unique aesthetic vocabulary, combining the horrific with the sublime,” she says. “Though his work is quite different from Matthew Barney’s, both artists share a regenerative vision, one that finds expression in grotesque beauty.” Spector spearheaded the museum’s acquisition of The University 2 (2004), a sculpture that resembles an architectural model of a modernist house, albeit one with decomposing werewolf heads tucked away inside. “He’s a very optimistic artist. It is very poetic and very intelligent.”