New York

Enrico David, Light Days, 2012, polystyrene, polyurethane foam, copper, tissue paper, watercolor, bone, 67 x 80 3/4 x 15 3/4". Michael Werner Gallery.

Enrico David, Light Days, 2012, polystyrene, polyurethane foam, copper, tissue paper, watercolor, bone, 67 x 80 3/4 x 15 3/4". Michael Werner Gallery.

Enrico David

Michael Werner Gallery/New Museum

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The body is supposed to decay. It’s supposed to ooze, deliquesce, attract carnivorous insects, and unto dust return. A sculpture in Enrico David’s exhibition at Michael Werner imagines what happens when it doesn’t. Bog-Piper, 2012, takes the form of a massive nerve ending—a dendrite the size of a room—that has petrified rather than putrefied, hardened into a brittle, blackened fossil. A synecdoche for the human form, the nerve’s tendrils, made from copper wire covered with painted tissue paper, bunch together to form a stem, which rises off the ground and terminates in a papier-mâché bulb. Here, one can barely make out the contours of a face, its mouth agape in a ghastly howl.

Throughout his two coinciding exhibitions in New York this spring—at the New Museum and at Michael Werner—David presented sculptures, drawings, and paintings that refract the body through a dialectic of ephemerality and permanence. At Michael Werner, the former tendency was evident in three untitled pencil drawings that featured loose, meandering lines coalescing to form a ring of faces in silhouette. Resembling spectral visages materializing from smoke, these faces convey a sense of contingency that arises in part from the drawings’ beginnings as automatist doodles. The forms of probable silhouettes spontaneously emerged as David’s pencil roamed the page, and were captured with thicker lines before they evanesced. The drawings were juxtaposed with a sculpture that seemed more lasting: Light Days, 2012, a deformed head perched on an elongated, upside-down U. Painted the color of desiccated skin and embedded with actual bone, this monstrous, bipedal body is part primitivist fantasy, part monument at the end of the world—and paired nicely with Mummy, 2012, a painting it faced, which displays the image of a head wrapped in gauze.

The New Museum show, curated by Gary Carrion-Murayari, is titled “Head Gas,” and presented paravents (folding screens), drawings of stalks of bamboo, more line drawings capturing faces in haphazard scribbles, and a group of five large canvases showing faces rendered amid vaporous clouds. In Odorless Rot, 2011, the cloud is sulfurous yellow, given depth by sponged-on black paint that carves out eye holes and a mouth. In Empathy Bubble, 2011, the cloud is black, the face’s lips distended, its eyes only pinpricks. Sometimes there is no immediately discernible face at all, as in the pseudo self-portrait Enrico Aphid, 2011, a meeting of brown, ocher, and a blob of hideous yellow.

The New Museum press release quotes David saying, “I imagine these images as the product of a conscious, physiological act of will. To exist despite the alienating and antagonizing nature of their surrounding environment.” The idea feels ancient. Yet it was hard not to think of our immersion in the digital, the threat to bodily integrity posed by our networked lives. The electric signals that shoot through our nervous systems from our brains to our fingertips form a continuum with those that, with the strike of a key, are disseminated through digital space. David’s vaporous, contingent selves suggest not the ecstasy of interconnectedness but the horror of dispersion.

Lloyd Wise