New York

David Altmejd

Andrea Rosen Gallery

Opulent, complex, and evocatively incongruous, David Altmejd’s sculptural scenarios have, in a relatively short time, insinuated themselves into the contemporary art world’s collective consciousness. Of course, his idiosyncratic formal vocabulary—quasi-modernist display environments sexed up with mirrored surfaces, theatrical lighting, and costume jewelry, all orchestrated to create sprawling disco sarcophagi for broken werewolf corpses—is already a riot of psychological tropes. Death and desire, the self and the other, decay and transformation: All are explicit in the forms and contexts of Altmejd’s gorgeous grotesqueries.

For viewers who first encountered the artist’s work in group shows like “demon- clownmonkey” at Artists Space in 2002 or last year’s “Scream” at Anton Kern Gallery, Altmejd’s first solo appearance at Andrea Rosen provided a fuller overview of his themes, as well as some minor variation. The gallery’s main space, painted black for the occasion, contained four works but was dominated by a pair of large constructions, The University 1 and The University 2 (all works 2004). The former is an appealing riff on Sol LeWitt, an open lattice of mirrored linear elements built into a floor-standing cubic matrix that glitters beneath the dramatic spotlighting, scattering reflections around the shadowy space. A primary structure given a darkly glamorous makeover, it suggests less the rigid mathematical order of its model than an atomization of perception that’s entirely in keeping with Altmejd’s preference for visual dynamism, not to mention his magpie fascination with shiny things.

If the relatively pure abstraction of The University 1 hints at a more low-key strand of Altmejd’s practice, its partner is a dramatic apotheosis of the artist’s trademark gestures. Measuring seventeen by twenty-five feet and rising to almost nine feet in places, The University 2 is a colossal, labyrinthine reliquary: its modular platforms edged with channels of white light like landing strips or fashion-show runways and shot through with warrenlike compartments that open onto lit and/or mirrored interior spaces. Topped by vitrines (some of which are eerily vacant) and decorated with clutches of silk flowers, little wire trees festooned with dime-store charms, carved and painted birds, long strands of golden chain, and hunks of raw minerals (not to mention the obligatory decomposing lycanthropes enfolded within its strange contours), the entire assemblage is an uncanny cross between a half-dismantled department store display and a low-budget natural history museum.

The two more modest works are similarly seductive: a small untitled piece lurking in one dimly lit corner featuring a lump of crystal-encrusted hair and the implausibly beautiful The Lovers, in which a pair of putrefying monsters lie entwined on a broad plinth in a chaotic embrace of bone, hair, and jewelry. Here, perhaps more than anywhere else in the show, viewers got a sense of the real delicacy Altmejd is able to conjure from abjection, as a network of body parts, caught in the spotlight, cast a morbidly elegant tangle of shadows in a recessed area of the platform. That Altmejd consistently manages to orchestrate real conceptual lucidity from these wild constellations of materials is a credit to his substantial skill. Yet it’s also plain that the fact that they cohere around what has, in only a handful of shows, become so inevitable a mode of address has the capacity to become something of a liability (recently overheard on Twenty-fourth Street: “Did you see the David Altmejd show yet?” “Oh, you mean the werewolf guy?”), especially since the genuine flair he exhibits makes clear his potential to develop a more expansive, thematically diverse practice.

Jeffrey Kastner