David Altmejd, The University 1, 2004, mirrors, wood, 66 x 71 x 106".

David Altmejd, The University 1, 2004, mirrors, wood, 66 x 71 x 106".

David Altmejd

The Brant Foundation Art Study Center

David Altmejd, The University 1, 2004, mirrors, wood, 66 x 71 x 106".

With its rusticated glamour and strangely artificial natural setting, the enclave known hyperbolically as “backcountry” Connecticut—home to collector Peter Brant’s elegant, capacious apple barn–turned–quasi-public kunsthalle—proves a surprisingly sympathetic setting for the riotous dazzle and decay of David Altmejd’s work. Set between an impossibly green polo pitch and a quiet stretch of road whose posh tranquility is disturbed only by the occasional lawn-service truck, the 9,800-square-foot space has been transformed by the artist into a series of ecosystems showcasing the various kingdoms of synthetic flora and fauna that make up his giddily complex, satisfyingly strange universe of sculptures, installations, and spatial interventions.

Altmejd remains one of contemporary art’s most resourceful collagists—his eye for the resonant connections between superficially antithetical juxtapositions is as keen as ever—but the main message of this mini-retrospective is one of diversifying modes of address. To be sure, certain basic impulses have remained consistent across the artist’s decadelong practice: a fascination with the body as both site for and agent of material transformation; a pursuit of the latent poetry in taxonomic display; a courting of negative space via physical ruptures, voids, and rifts; and a recognition of the rich generative potential to be found in degeneration. But as he has honed his formal and technical capabilities and refined his conceptual strategies, he has transformed what might once have potentially read as gimmicky—lycanthropic corpses cracked open like geodes to reveal crystalline eruptions, towering giants enrobed in fur and feathers or dripping with Technicolor sphagnum—into persuasive, fully formed presences.

What has perhaps been the most dramatic recent development in Altmejd’s work—the engagement of the surrounding architecture—is emphatic from the first moments of the show. Drawing the walls themselves into his scheme, the artist utilizes two brands of alteration in the first set of galleries: large-scale mirroring, which was seen most notably in his project for the Canadian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2007 and is here crazed and pockmarked with holes, and a striking illusionistic plastering technique debuted in his 2011 show at New York’s Andrea Rosen Gallery, in which the very material of the wall seems to come alive, excavating itself and gathering into recognizable forms. The first conceit effectively puts viewers directly inside the kinds of display habitats the artist has made from the beginning of his career, destabilizing spatial bearings and adding extra dimensions of radiance to his already glimmering assemblages. The latter, meanwhile, is a fitting instantiation of Altmejd’s view of space as active and tangible and of bodies as both occupiers and destroyers of it (in one of the show’s occasionally too-literal choices, the form the wall matter repeatedly organizes itself into is the artist’s hand).

Like the entire show—which, in addition to Altmejd’s familiar forms, also features a sequence of peculiar heads (all 2011), often upside down, apparently trepanned, and set on stakes like marauders’ trophies—the pieces scattered throughout these first galleries range across the years, from Untitled (Dark), 2001, one of the very first of the artist’s pieces to feature the encrusted “werewolf” heads, and the discofied LeWittian lattice The University 1, 2004, to newer works such as the enigmatic La rose, 2010, a curious Kaaba-esque Plexiglas box sporting a tiny golden rattail. (This last work is an engagingly simple anomaly within the artist’s oeuvre, both its name and countenance nodding to the blankly evocative incongruity of Duchamp’s Fresh Widow, 1920.) Plexiglas, with its paradoxically transparent confinement is, as always with Altmejd, a favored material, and here it is used to house several of the artist’s now signature large-scale arrays, including the striking Untitled, 2009, and, upstairs, the even more colossal Swarm, 2011. Both of these works propose themselves as biomes of sorts, terraria within which inert materials—golden chains, pastel threads, crystals, epoxy resin—coalesce into intricate networks and systems, the ordering hand of the artist like a shepherd coaxing a flock into formation or a gardener teasing blossoms from carefully tended vines.

Jeffrey Kastner