To really appreciate Pawel Althamer, you have to ignore virtually everything he says about his art. He sees himself as a shaman, but he’s actually a talented and scrupulous professional. He converses in gauzy abstractions but fashions sculptures that are fleshly and vivid. He claims they are magical objects for connecting people, yet they are unyielding and confrontational. He poses as an optimist, yet gloominess suffuses nearly all of his work.
The Warsaw-based artist has established his reputation in Europe, but is virtually unknown in New York, where his first big US show fills three floors of the New Museum. I had seen his pieces here and there, but never so many at once, and now I understand why he remains relatively obscure despite his visceral appeal. Zigzagging between rambling videos and highly wrought effigies, Althamer is a maverick, a conceptualist who makes fetishes, a spiritualist soaked in materialism. He is also the rare major artist who functions almost wholly outside the market.
On the museum’s third floor, dozens of wrecked corpses parade across the dim gallery or sit expectantly on stools. Gloopy plastic skin hangs off wiry metal bones. Limbs look scalded, sinews crushed. Yet these flayed zombies sport intact faces – not just generic mannequin masks, but the distinctive features of individual people, asleep, at peace, or in pain. A few days’ stubble sprouts from a middle-aged white man’s otherwise flawless skin. A heavy-set fellow smiles to himself, relishing a private joy. A black man’s closed expression betokens abiding sorrow. One woman has the beautiful, serene aspect of a Madonna, her head tilted humbly forward as if to gaze at the divine baby in her arms. The clash between mangled bodies and realistically rendered heads is consummately creepy.
To create the piece, which debuted at the last Venice Biennale, Althamer asked passers-by to let him take plaster casts of their faces. These he sent to his plastics factory in Warsaw for reproduction. The results gather together a cross-section of wealth and poverty. Street vendors and seasonal workers mingle – in the museum, as in life – with wealthy and privileged visitors. It’s a microcosm of the city rendered freakish by design. Althamer’s flayed ghosts seem to recall, with sorrow, Shelley’s invocation of a great but vanished civilisation:
“‘Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
Amid these sightless wraiths, curator Massimiliano Gioni has placed video screens playing selections from another piece, “So-Called Waves and Other Phenomena of the Mind”, which record Althamer’s attempts to spelunk through the niches of his brain. He tries out peyote, hashish, magic mushrooms and LSD; he has himself injected with truth serum; he undergoes hypnosis. The last of these experiments yields the most interesting results: impossible memories of second world war Warsaw. Despite having been born in 1967, he “recalls” the bombed and cratered city and a damaged girl with her face turned towards a wall. He is a boy of five with a small dog that helps soothe his anguish. Althamer is reliving a war that has seeped into his consciousness through recollections he’s heard, images he’s seen, and descriptions he’s read. Under hypnosis he trembles and chokes: the war-scarred landscape is so real to him that we can sense his palpable need for escape.
For Althamer, art is not just a selfish form of therapy, projected into the public sphere; rather, it’s a tool for social justice. He has collaborated with troubled children and sufferers from multiple sclerosis. The retrospective includes a coat-drive for the homeless and a zone where visitors can don white coats, grab brushes, and make their mark on the welcoming walls. For “Black Market” he joined forces with a group of African immigrants to make a life-sized ebony carving, part tribal chieftain, part Greek Kouros, with cowrie shells for eyes.
That piece, like many, is a self-portrait of sorts. Althamer’s likeness occupies a central place in his oeuvre, though he’s always estranged or decomposing, mentally or physically frayed. In an early work, he patches himself together out of animal intestines, wax, hemp fibre, grass and hair, his jaundiced form corrupted but queasily preserved. Blue veins bulge in his arms like snakes. He is life-in-death, a frozen victim of a future plague.
“Self Portrait as the Billy Goat” is even sadder. If Picasso styled himself as the ribald minotaur, Althamer acts out the cuckolded goat-man Matolek. This melancholy figure of sexual inadequacy, a Polish cartoon character from the 1930s, is always searching for the legendary land where goats get shoes. Althamer has embraced Matolek as an alter ego and a metaphor for vulnerability. He has even toured Brazil and Mali costumed for the role in bright red shorts and red shoes, a giant mask resting on his thin shoulders. It’s a lonely life, enacting invented rituals in unfamiliar places, searching for some sort of redemption. Here he sculpts himself in Matolek’s guise, a melancholy figure leaning forward with his head in his hand – Rodin’s thinker as a silly beast. It’s a poignant evocation of the artist as solitary weirdo. Althamer has made himself into an idol unworthy of worship, an icon for a disintegrating world.
To April 13, newmuseum.org