Walk into David Altmejd’s exhibition at Andrea Rosen and there it is, in the center of the gallery floor: the ur-piece, his biggest sculpture yet, an inevitable explosion of his mysterious personal system of iconography. “The University 2” (all works 2004) is a large architectural construction made of wood, mini-staircases, and lots of little “rooms”—something like a spare, Goth compound for a one foot-tall creature. Much of the surface, both inside and out, is covered with mirrors. When you look at the sculpture you often see yourself looking back at you, and Altmejd sometimes arranges mirrors at angles to reflect fifteen or more of you when you look inside the various cave-like rooms. The Kusama-like perceptual games are not only disorienting, they encourage voyeurism. Because you’re often looking at only half of an object Altmejd has scattered within “The University 2”’s interior—the rest is just a reflection or obscured by perpendicular mirrors—you’re forced to peer into every little opening to get a handle on the interior iconography. By only providing piecemeal views, Altmejd makes you hungrier for details the more you scrutinize the piece.
While there are no obvious signs of life within this compound, there’s a whole lot of death, not to mention examples of the uncanny in the Freudian sense, like the little fake birds perched within few of the structure’s rooms. They’re not really “dead” and they’re certainly not alive—just mannequins, symbols for the potential of life here and reminders of its absence. A few of Altmejd’s signature werewolf skeletons are scattered throughout “The University 2” like discarded prey, perhaps killed just for the perverse rush of killing, then left to decay. “Decay” in the Altmejdian sense is something of a cross between gaudy and disgusting. The werewolf corpses still have hair sprouting from their skeletons and are encrusted in glitter. Clusters of crystals seem to grow organically from various parts of their dead bodies and, surrealistically, the werewolves wear blonde wigs. Still more types of Canal Street bling are devoted to these dead half-beast/half-humans—they’re wrapped in a nexus of gold chains, Altmejd’s version of sticking a flag into the soil of conquered territory.
The other three pieces are marginally less spectacular, but equally precious. “The University 1” is a beautifully constructed (very Sol LeWitt) structure of hundreds of stacked cubes of mirrored glass, forming something akin to a cubic jungle gym created with nearly bombastic perfection. “Untitled” is the show’s most modest piece—a werewolf skull (made of resin, plastic, plexiglass, and lots more materials) with the obligatory blonde wig, and “The Lovers” is a full werewolf skeleton with all of the grotesque plumage Altmejd adorns their corpses with.
You can’t ignore Altmejd’s connection to Matthew Barney because, when you get right down to it, they do similar things. Barney’s Cremaster Cycle at the Guggenheim caused outrage and amazement, venom and praise, for its ability to freeze the viewer in a warped world where the artist reigned as overlord. Rational sense became Barney-sense, a psychological state based on mysterious sexual symbolism and weirdly fatalistic determinism—essentially, an artist assuming the role of myth-author. “The University 2” conjures a younger, more tongue-in-cheek and much more lo-tech version of Barney, but the conceptual link is Altmejd’s obvious aspiration to author mythology and to create narratives he doesn’t try to explain, and which probably remain more interesting if left inexplicable. His are dead-end stories, the narratives of which have already happened or are about to. The viewer is merely left with the remnants from which to piece together a story of her own. The author provides the framework, you choose your own adventure.
The Barney/Altmejd model of making art is a smart one, in a business sense. How to reject the content when all details are withheld, or, conversely, when the intentionally obscure details exceed anyone’s grasp of mythology or history to the point when the only option is simply to trust the author? What’s my version of the Altmejd story? I’d like to think there’s an unseen, Havisham-ish creature living underneath “The University 2” who calls up blonde werewolf-whores then finishes the deed by killing them or leaving them to putrefy in their own comely accessories which ironically serve as their grotesque uniform to rot in. It’s fun to have the legwork left up to you, to plow through various sexualized gothic fantasies in search of Altmejd’s holy grail. But it also smacks suspiciously of an artist shrouding himself in a criticism-deflecting enigma. Altmejd may be on his way to handcuffing himself as someone who can do nothing other than create engaging, but ultimately trivial and self-propelled mythology in his art. You get the feeling that if he removed the mask, he’d no longer be able to breathe.