July/August 2005

more feature articles:

Timeline 2005
Charles Ross‚ Star Axis
by Jon Carver

Monsters in the closet:
Learning to love David Altmejd‚s werewolves

By David Velasco

David Altmejd: I am really not interested in gore. What I make has to be positive and seductive. Instead of rotting, the characters in my work are crystallizing. This makes the narratives of the pieces move towards life rather than death.

Randy Gladman: So even where there is a decapitated werewolf you are being
optimistic?

DA: Yes, totally. It is intended to be alive. Maybe weird and dark, but certainly alive.1

In a nation polarized over social and moral questions, international institutions, immigrant rights, gay marriage and celebrity divorce, taxes on inheritance, sex education for U. S. minors and African adults, and where popular opinion is often evenly divided, fear remains the most effective bond. When citizenship is produced by a general sense of dread over border patrols and sexual sanctions, there remains little room to define community outside of the very terms of the division. This current exigency provides fertile ground for the imagination of artists like the young, Montreal-born David Altmejd, whose exquisitely detailed sculptures, creepy proto-narrative instances of B-movie camp encased in a tessellation of light and plastic, feed our insatiable and telling fascination with horror and monstrosity.

Werewolves provide the most immediately striking and characteristic image in Altmejd‚s work. As if the appropriation of this historically rich symbol were not enough, he startlingly manipulates these models of transformation and becoming to unsettle the commonplace categories. Lying supine on minimalist beds of mirrors and fluorescent light, or decapitated and displayed in Plexiglas boxes like spectacles from a medieval freak show, these built beasts expose their damaged insides, bones and crystallized organs laid bare. If Altmejd speaks of them as being alive, critics have frequently highlighted the Gothic dimension of his sculptures, arguing that they look like crime scenes or morgues, or that the werewolves appear to be corpses.2

David Altmejd, view of installation at Andrea Rosen Gallery, October 22ųNovember 27, 2004 (photo: David Altmejd © 2004; courtesy of Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York)

While these monsters seem frail, vulnerable, and, well, dead, I‚d like to suspend the apocalyptic dimension of these interpretations and hold open the possibility that they may be creatures in recovery or in the process of birth. There are certainly elements of Altmejd‚s recent installations, notably his repeated use of artificial spring birds carrying strands of twine and wire, which could just as easily signify healing or resurrection. Indeed, the cinematic tradition instructs us that a werewolf always resumes human form upon death, and Altmejd‚s beings are still a far cry from human.3

Having chanced upon Altmejd‚s work at the 2004 Whitney Biennial, I was attracted to something so immediately right and now about his art. If dangerous, these feelings are sometimes necessary, and they pushed me to explore the reasons for this emotional provocation. Altmejd‚s work manifests as found scenes, installations in medias res. They are thus doubly liminalųinternally invoking transformation and, in the context of the exhibition, functioning as a threshold. The work‚s interregnal appearance inspires a sleuth-like analytical approach.

I subsequently became motivated to learn his vocabulary and complicated grammar. I located a potential key to his werewolf argot in his solo show at New York‚s Andrea Rosen Gallery.  In a corner of the gallery, sharp crystals jutted out of a mess of hair propped up on top of a pedestal. Much like his recurrent birds and flowers, the wig was an artificial reproduction of a natural object, a falseness Altmejd made no effort to conceal. Emerging from the nutrients of the styled mane, the crystals were solid and inert. They nonetheless seemed more natural than the hair. This interplay between artifice and nature, the organic and the inorganic, thoroughly informs Altmejd‚s sculptures.

Though the unsettling of accepted binaries can generate boundless discussions, there always remains the sense that it doesn‚t lead nearly deep enough into these sculptures. Their aftermath aestheticųreminiscent of Michael Haneke‚s film Time of the Wolf4, which could easily be an accompanying text to Altmejd‚s workųvertiginously debilitates normal strategies of interpretation. The sculptures feel like puzzles, deliberately unfinished, with seams and glue still showing. Moody, they somewhat obscenely straddle the border of public and private where, quivering with suspense, they display a staged and campy edge. You get the queasy feeling you‚ve stumbled across something you‚re not supposed to see, even though the work practically hams it up, wearing its theatrics on its sleeve.

David Altmejd, detail of The Lovers, 2004, plaster, resin, paint, fake hair, jewelry, glitter, wood, 45 x 90 x 54 inches (photo: David Altmejd © 2004; courtesy of Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York)

Critic Dereck McCormack perceptively notes that Altmejd‚s werewolves also invoke Freud‚s Wolfman (aka Sergei Pankejeff), one of the analyst‚s late and best-known patients.5 When he first went to consult Freud, the Wolfman suffered chronic constipation (though he initially offered to release his bowels on the analyst‚s head). The Wolfman, whose pseudonym derives from a childhood nightmare in which he spied six or seven white wolves sitting in a tree outside his bedroom window, is one of Freud‚s exemplary subjects of rigorous dream work. Freud saw in his nightmare a telling narrative, a screen memory produced to veil the Wolfman‚s childhood trauma, a result of witnessing his parents having sex.  For Freud, the wolves symbolized young Sergei‚s fear that the paternal figure would strip him of his phallus. Following the principle of dream reversal, Freud asserted that the wolves‚ stillness perversely stood for the father‚s aggressive actions.

If Sergei‚s nightmarish wolves had their own screen memories, would they look anything like Altmejd‚s sculptures? Stripped of their limbs in the artist‚s displays, the wolves are creepily pornographic. Theorists Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari once noted that wolf-men are significant to social groups practicing rites of sexual initiation.6

Advocates for the promiscuity of perpetual transformation to thwart all forms of domination, they would no doubt delight in Altmejd‚s potent hybrids. The two instances of witnessing summoned up by the piecesųour own as beholders of these intimate sculptures, and the Wolfman‚s spectatorship of the primal sceneųimplicate everyone in a voyeuristic frenzy that might mark the beginning of what Deleuze and Guattari would likely call a collective „becoming-werewolf.š7

These lotharios scare up some modern sex appeal in Delicate Men in Positions of Power, a piece shown at the 2004 Whitney Biennial in New York, in which one of the werewolves sports Calvin Klein briefs. Altmejd‚s combination of dark camp, glamour, and eroticism thus led critic Jack Bankowsky to elect this sculpture as a forerunner for „new gay art,š a battered term Bankowsky employs to delimit work that appropriates faggy themes while forgoing troublesome and career-endangering „out and proudš enunciations (so 90s).8  The theoretical appeal of this work may well lie in its restaging of the closet and its predictable narrative. Openly displaying their wounds and inner secrets, Altmejd‚s creatures nonetheless remain cloaked in the mysteries of metaphor. Closeted as these beastly bodies are, Altmejd has arguably given us history‚s first sculptural gay werewolves. How suiting, then, that they‚re now represented by one of Chelsea‚s more fashionable galleries.

David Altmejd, Delicate Men in Positions of Power, 2003, wood, paint, plaster, resin, mirror, wire, glue, plastic, cloth, fake hair, jewelry, glitter, 96 x 192 x 180 inches (photo: David Altmejd © 2004; courtesy of Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York)

This pairing of werewolves and queers is certainly not entirely unanticipated in the monster tradition. Michel Foucault drew a parallel between the juridico-biological domain of monsters and the pathologization of sexual deviants in his brief essay, The Abnormals. Specifically, Foucault looks into the trouble monsters, both human and mythical, produce for the law.9 The unnatural beings crafted by Altmejd and the unnatural acts only so recently excised from U.S. jurisprudence share a special sibling relationship.10 Aren‚t children who touch themselves in indecent manners told that they will suffer grotesque hair growth?

Of the many monstrous beings populating our psychosocial landscape, the werewolf is unique as a creature suffering an ineluctable syndrome. The werewolf is a human parasite, a Mr. Hyde bereft of Dr. Jekyll‚s scientific and modern legitimacy. This theme is explored along more explicitly gay lines in the late-1980s camp thriller Curse of the Queerwolf, which depicts the contagious and non-hereditary distribution of transvestitism and homosexual desire. Though myths and legends vary as to the degree of a person‚s mastery over his animal state, recent film and literature insist that one can be a werewolf (or Queerwolf) and still carry on at least the semblance of a human lifeųeven if it is usually ruined or, at the very least, complicated by chronic and frequently uncontrollable metamorphosis.

The beast one can‚t quite control, the animal that comes out at night to follow suspicious desires, the life that confounds and challenges congenital modes of inheritance and affinity... it doesn‚t take much effort to see the thematic and representational ties between werewolves and queers. Altmejd makes it all the easier to draw such connections with his dolled-up werewolf trollops and dangerous adulteration of binary categories. It‚s no surprise that these sculptures are so suggestive of discotheques and club life: surrounded by mirrored surfaces and lights, decorated with kitsch, these sexy beasts are party monsters, drunk and diseased from nights of frivolous debauchery. In this way, they also summon images of queers unjustly punished for their contaminating fluids, nighttime habits and fabulous garb.

David Altmejd, detail of Delicate Men in Positions of Power, 2003, wood, paint, plaster, resin, mirror, wire, glue, plastic, cloth, fake hair, jewelry, glitter, 96 x 192 x 180 inches (photo: David Altmejd © 2004; courtesy of Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York)

Isn‚t it both viable and even necessary, then, to interpret Altmejd‚s sculptures as allegories for the status of modern queers and abnormals? Campy and disguised, broken to bits, scary and wild, yet bizarrely urbane in their glamorous outfits, they give a sneak-peek into the backyard of our political unconscious, offering metaphor and caveats in the stead of an articulate horizon. Like Samuel Delany‚s vision of Bellona in the epic novel Dhalgren (taken up so elegantly by David Bowie in Diamond Dogs), Altmejd‚s work may provide a map for the utopicųif we can learn to embrace fragmented werewolves as members of the tribe, remaking these traditional symbols of fear and othering into active facilitators of a solidarity beyond queer hating, foreign bashing, animal baiting bondage.

This is perhaps why, in my earliest intuitions regarding Altmejd‚s recent pieces, I felt compelled to rescue his scary monsters from the cemetery. At least some of these creatures, so quiet and dead at first sight, are, as it were, in the life.

David Velasco is the winner of ART PAPERS‚ Young Writers Contest sponsored by The Coca-Cola Company.

NOTES

1 Randy Gladman, „21st Century Werewolf Aestheticsųan interview with David Altmejd,š C: International Contemporary Art 82 (Summer 2004).

2 See Melissa Dunn, „Whitney Biennial 2004: A Good-Looking Corpse,š Flash Art (May-June 2004): 63, Grace Glueck in The New York Times, November 26, 2004, Section E2:41, and Andrea K. Scott, „David Altmejd, Dana Schutz and Kirsten Stoltmann, Material Eyes,š Time Out New York, January 1-8, 2004, 52.

3 See, for example, the 1941 horror classic The Wolf Man.

4 For more on the work of Michael Haneke, see Felicia Feaster, „Imminent Catastrophe: Life Hangs in the Balance in the Films of Michael Haneke,š ART PAPERS 28:6 (November-December 2004): 34-39.

5 Dereck McCormack, „Hairy Winston,š The Look (Summer 2004): 30.

6 Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, translated by Brian Masumi, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987, 247.

7 Ibid., 232-309, for more on Deleuze and Guattari‚s concept of „becomingš.

8 Jack Bankowsky, „This is Today,š Artforum 62:9 (May 2004): 233.

9 Michel Foucault, „The Abnormals,š Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth 1954-1984, edited by Paul Rabinow, New York: The New Press, 1997: 51.

10 Refer to the U.S. Supreme Court‚s ruling for Lawrence et al. v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558 (2003).

 

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