In 2009, Peter Brant opened The Brant Foundation, a nearly 10,000-square-foot gallery in a renovated stone barn in Greenwich, Connecticut, which acts as both a study centre and exhibition space. He has used the gallery to mount impressive annual solo shows to celebrate and promote a group of artists he seems to be cultivating as carefully as his own collection. These exhibitions, which take up the entire space, are sourced primarily from Brant’s private collection, though the artists are asked to make new work for the shows as well. In 2009, the gallery was opened up to Josh Smith, and the following year Swiss artist Urs Fischer took the helm, leaving behind a vast sculpture to rival Jeff Koons’s Balloon Dog (1994), which sits on a large lawn just across the road.
For the foundation’s 2011–12 season, Brant invited David Altmejd. Like The Index, Altmejd’s mirrored vitrine (stuffed with birds, hairy humanoid figures, prisms and other description-defying objects) that grabbed Brant’s attention at the Venice Biennale five years ago, his showing at the Brant Foundation was a similar jumble of form, colour and texture that belies what is really an organized system. The Canadian artist approached the 110-year-old stone barn like a body, with rooms standing in for various organs and body parts – heart, chest, head and face. This provided a great insight into Altmejd’s work in general, revealing not only that there’s order amidst the chaos, but that no matter how cacophonous his mix of materials might be, his subject matter is one that’s as time-honoured as art itself: the human figure.
The show is Altmejd’s most comprehensive to date, with three-quarters of the work coming from Brant’s private collection and the rest created specifically for the space. A few of his well-known werewolf heads made it into the exhibition at the beginning and at the very end, including Untitled (Dark) (2001) and Untitled (Blue Jay) (2004). Strewn in between was a clash of different materials: whole rooms lined with shattered mirrors, plaster hands (casts of Altmejd’s own) ripping into the walls, large lucite vitrines intricately strung with hand-dyed neon threads and larger-than-life figurative sculptures composed of roughly hewn clay clotted with hair, coconuts, gems and minerals. This tangled array might sound like an oddly unfocused exhibition, and it was a very busy show, but Altmejd has always displayed a fascination with a wide range of media.
In what might be described as the main room – the ‘chest’ of the gallery space – Altmejd arranged a meeting of monsters, the aforementioned oversized clay and coconut-clad figures. But the reason he decided to display them in this gallery had less to do with the show’s overarching structure and more to do with Tourist (1997), Maurizio Cattelan’s stuffed pigeons that sit permanently on the window-sills and rafters. Altmejd admitted to feeling intimidated by Cattelan’s presence, and so he countered with a face-off between the stuffed birds and his hairy, mineral-encrusted monsters. In fact, he had planned on asking Cattelan if he could install one of the pigeons on his monster sculptures. ‘I think it would have been positive for everyone. Because right now he wins, you know?’ he said. ‘There’s something kind of smartass about it, like he’s on top of everything. I think it would have been cool to let him be on top of me, but it would have been a decision that I would have made. Then it would have been, “Oh you think you’re so tough? Well okay, but ...”’ he trailed off. The pigeons, however, remained undeterred.
Still, Altmejd needn’t worry about being upstaged by the other artists in Brant’s collection. His pop sensibilities and dashes of humour in even his darkest works are right in line with Brant’s preferred aesthetic. If Altmejd really needed further reassurance, Brant himself bought up all the new pieces, except for the shattered mirrors covering the walls. Those, I was informed, would be properly recycled, leaving the gallery clean and white, ready for the next artist.