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