David Altmejd comes full circle

The Montreal artist on working with giant figures in Connecticut and creating a ’timeless’ sculpture for the Montreal Museum of Fine Art
The Swarm, 2011 (Jessica Eckert)

For artist David Altmejd, multiple heads are better than one. “I want to have as many heads as possible,” says the Montreal-bred New Yorker. He’s speaking, of course, about the work in his new show, opening Nov. 5 at the Brant Foundation Art Study Center in Greenwich, Conn. (Viewings by appointment only.)

Known for his large-scale installations and anthropomorphic sculptures—werewolves, disembodied heads, winged creatures—the 37-year-old recently unveiled a permanent public sculpture commissioned by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts for the exterior of its new wing.

His work, which explores such themes as bodily transformation, caught the attention of media mogul and art collector Peter Brant at the Venice Biennale, where Altmejd represented Canada in 2007. The Brant show features works old and new, including the largest plexiglass sculpture he’s ever made, giant figures displayed on high pedestals, heads galore, and creatures made of resin grapes and coconuts. Yes, coconuts!

Maclean’s caught up with Altmejd at his Long Island City studio.

Q: You’ve always found beauty in unique materials. This new show features works made from coconuts. That’s pretty unusual.

A: It just made sense as a material because they kind of look like wood, and they kind of look like eggs and heads. Like they contain something, and that’s really important in my work: suggesting that something is contained. That’s the reason I like heads as well. And the potential for growth—the fact that there’s seeds. And also the humour.

Q: Can you tell me a bit about your new exhibit at the Brant Foundation?

A: The space is huge. It’s made of four very large rooms that have different identities, so I’m playing with that. For example, there’s a room with plaster interventions, where I use [sculpted] hands to take matter from one place to drag it to another place and build something else. So I’m creating a piece like that in the walls of the room.

Upstairs there’s a room with a huge skylight, and it contains the biggest plexiglass piece I’ve ever done. It’s called The Swarm. It’s 20 feet long and it’s filled with webs of threads, chains and little plexiglass bees that creates a swarm-like movement with crystals and floating heads. The effect is very magical but when you actually get close to it you can see it’s extremely physical. You see how the plexi is glued and the glue is dripping, which I always find very seductive. I like the idea that one object can create two experiences.

Q: You use unusual materials like actual minerals. How important is that to your work?

A: I really fetishize process. People usually forget about that. They see the references to fantasy or science fiction and to them that’s all the work is about. But for me, 80 per cent of what I’m preoccupied with is just my relationship to materials.

Q: How does that micro-focus apply to your giant figures?

A: It’s important for me that one sculpture is just a combination of a lot of small moments. In a certain way, a giant is not really a body; it’s so big that it’s also architecture. The fact that it’s so big permits me to forget it’s s a figure and get close to it and work on details and forget about the body, which is harder to do with something life-size.

Q: Could you give me an example of a process you use when making figures?

A: I start just building a wooden structure, a very, very basic skeleton. Then on top of that I glue styrofoam that I carve, cover it in some kind of resin to make a shell around the styrofoam, paint it, glue stuff, make holes in it…

Q: Creating so many large-scale pieces requires the help of assistants, which I imagine demands a certain relinquishing of control. Do you tend to be very precise in your work?

A: No, I’m not a perfectionist. I have this very organic way of thinking about objects, so it’s not like I expect something very specific. If, for example, I realize it took a direction I don’t like, I can very easily change it by cutting a hole in it or doing something else.

Q: Your bronze sculpture The Eye was commissioned by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. As a native Montrealer, what was that experience like?

A: It was extremely meaningful for me, unlike everything I’ve ever done. Just the fact that it’s a public sculpture, it’s a totally different logic. I had to think of things like timelessness in terms of material and form. I’ve always thought just about the present and I’ve always been just focused on the moment, the details. But I had to step back; I had no choice. It’s outdoors, it’s potentially going to be there forever. The MMFA is also where I started experiencing art for the first time, so it’s kind of full circle. I’m very proud of it.