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.”
For years werewolves were a particular obsession of Altmejd’s. “It is really powerful to see a human body part on a table, but by now it’s become commonplace,” he explains, mentioning the work of Kiki Smith and Louise Bourgoise as the most obvious examples. “I thought using a monster would be just as powerful, but weird instead of familiar. I chose the werewolf kind of intuitively but also because there’s a kind of symbolic potential there. You think about double identity and transformation.”
Altmejd’s fascination with monsters dates back to his youth. “It’s almost too obvious when you look at my work, but there was this Jim Henson movie called The Dark Crystal that was like, ‘Wow!’ for me,” he admits, with a touch of good-humored embarrassment. “I loved all that fantasy stuff, like The Neverending Story and Return From Witch Mountain.” On trips outside the city (his mom is an administrator at Université du Québec à Montréal; his dad is an importer-exporter in the fish and steel industries), he would spend hours in the forest foraging for mushrooms and collecting precious-looking rocks. “I would build boxes for the rocks and sort of fetishize them,” he recalls. “Like I was finding little treasures.” When he entered Université du Québec à Montréal, he originally thought he would be a biologist; after a year he switched to art. “I’ve always been interested in science and evolution,” he says. “I still am.”
Back in his studio, in an industrial building overlooking the elevated 7 train, Altmejd’s team of five assistants is busy sawing wood and cutting hundreds of pieces of mirror to the strains of classical music. Working with so many assistants is new for Altmejd; he had to hire extra help in order to produce the Denver project in time. The site-specific installation, which will be on view starting October 28, centers on his new favorite fantastical creature, the giant. This time he is building a veritable army of mirror-encrusted colossi between 12 and 15 feet high, their bodies in various stages of decay. Altmejd points out the labyrinthine staircases built into the giants’ body parts—one running down a thigh, another around a torso.
“For years I was making those sort of presentation structures, and using those spaces to hide weird objects inside,” he says, referring to pieces like The University 2. “Now I’m really into the reverse, the idea of the giant transforming into architecture. I hate to get into specifics of symbolic meaning, but I think the giant can be seen as a metaphor for nature or the environment. And it’s interesting for me to see that body as a little world, a total universe inside of which I can lose myself for days.”
Cydney Payton, the director of MCA Denver and curator of the opening exhibition, says that Altmejd’s ideas mesh perfectly with her vision for the institution, which she describes as “a living, breathing physical environment, like a human body.” (In fact, the show is titled “Star Power: Museum as Body Electric.”) And any shock or horror a viewer might experience at first glance is exactly what Altmejd is going for. “For me, in order to find something really beautiful, it has to be in this kind of context of contrasts,” says the artist. “I think that a beautiful earring is more beautiful on the ear of a monster.”