Habitat for Lycanthropy
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Habitat for Lycanthropy

David Altmejd’s art looks good on paper. First off, it’s about werewolves, and who can resist the cuddly therianthropes? From folklore to B-movies, the werewolf maintains a lasting hold on the popular imagination. However, Altmejd’s work is neither folksy nor campy. In the Montreal-born, New York-based sculptor’s elaborate installations, he starts off with the (usually fragmented, decaying) figure of the werewolf, and embellishes it with everything from crystals and jewellery, to S&M paraphernalia, to taxidermied animals, combining all this within modern display structures of mirror and Plexiglas. While the werewolf itself is a classic symbol of transformation, the addition of such disparate elements expands the metamorphic metaphor into a dialectic between beast and human, repulsion and beauty, decay and renewal, nature and artifice.
Aptly titled, Metamorphosis at the Oakville Galleries is Altmejd’s first solo show in Canada outside of Quebec, odd considering the rapidly rising art-star status the Columbia Fine Arts grad has garnered internationally. Altmejd will in fact be representing Canada in this year’s Venice Biennale, the number-one event for contemporary art worldwide. It’s about time English Canada got to know the artist’s work outside of photographs (which, incidentally, are fantastic).
So does the live experience of Altmejd’s sculptures live up to their labyrinthine descriptions and dramatic presence on film? Unfortunately, not so much. The Oakville show is slightly disappointing, first-of-all, because it only contains three works, one in each room of its small Gairloch Gardens location. And in this domestic-type setting, natural light breaks down the slick appearance of installation photos, revealing shoddy construction (cracked glass, gobs of glue) and general fracas among the installations’ various parts.
The Lovers (above) is the most unified of the sculptures, perhaps because it is the simplest, with two werewolf-figures decomposing in a sexual embrace, their eroded flesh giving way to bourgeoning crystals and sinewy gold chains. One of the beasts’ skeletal feet is cordoned off in a mirrored cube, as if elevated from its earthly state of decay into a bona fide museum piece. Simply titled, Werewolf 2 (sexier in the French, Loup-garou) also plays with display design, but the broken casing and randomly scattered artificial flowers tend to cheapen the concept. Altmejd’s most recent work, The Hunter, is the most confusing. It consists of a giant man’s head encroached upon by an exploding crystalline structure (reminiscent of the ROM’s new design). Within the cavernous space of the plaster skull is everything from butt plugs and dildos to pinecones and acorns, fake flowers, and stuffed squirrels.
Some enjoy the pop culture chaos of the installations, as well as the “hand-made” quality present in less-than-perfect execution. Yet these things confuse the concepts that make Altmejd’s practice interesting (fetishistic display practices, humanity vs. animality, the blending of the organic and the synthetic) and belie the photographic impression of the uncanny.
Re-Envisioning Habitat, at Oakville Galleries’ Centennial Square location, presents a selection of works from the permanent collection in which artists explore notions of community and people’s relationship to their spatial environments, be these industrial, urban, or suburban. The show is rife with lush large-format photographs of mostly degraded landscapes by Edward Burtynsky, Roy Arden, Susan Dobson, and others. A highlight of the show is Kim Adams’ meticulous sculptures created with model-making and train set miniatures. The maquettes mimic industry and locomotion while turning these things on their heads – in Mount Smithson (right), miniature freight cars complete with banal advertising slogans are stacked one on top of the other to produce monumental architecture, or a stand-in mountain. Curator Derek Knight gives a talk this evening at 7:30.
David Altmejd: Metamorphosis runs until March 25. Re-Envisioning Habitat runs till March 18.
Images courtesy of Oakville Galleries.