BY Brian Dillon in Features | 25 SEP 15
Featured in
Issue 174

Lopped and Hewed

Brian Dillon considers the 'monstrous homunculi' of Enrico David

BY Brian Dillon in Features | 25 SEP 15

Something – or is it someone? – is lying – or is it squatting? – face down in Enrico David’s studio in Hackney, London, as the artist prepares for his solo exhibition at The Hepworth Wakefield, which opens in November. The figure, if that’s what it is, has been half-modelled in polystyrene and clay, with its pallid rump in the air and stumpy limbs of a sort tucked in tight so the whole body, for now, is just a blunt emanation of the makeshift plywood base beneath. Except for this: the broken-necked piece-in-progress, which will eventually be rendered in stone-like Jesmonite, concludes au fond with an unlikely human head. Dun-coloured hair frames a face that slumps a little where it meets the board, and its expression is an ambiguous response to the larval strangeness of its own body. Resignation? Surprise? Indifference? David has been explaining that his current working modus revolves almost entirely around the translation of drawing into sculpture, as he tries to figure what his writhing, abject, erotic and excremental forms might look like in three dimensions – what the image might conceal or have failed to imagine. He shows me the drawing from which the current piece emerged and the problem is clear: the figure is a deal more coiled and elaborate than the nascent sculpture so far admits. One of its snaking members is still unresolved on paper; the artist doesn’t yet know where it will terminate. But whether in two or three dimensions, the work looks extruded: as if it’s been squeezed out – shat out, really – it lies before us in twists and turns at once fleshy and ectoplasmic. As for the face: it’s a startling addition, almost an embarrassment in light of the formal problems David has lately focused on.

The Assumption of Weee, 2014, jesmonite and graphite, 50 × 28 × 11 cm. All images courtesy the artist and Michael Werner, New York and London

Much or most of his recent work is like this, eschewing the theatricality of installations or constellations of works, concentrating instead on discrete sculptures that seek, he says, their own limits. Still, they can be monstrous, vagrant things. Gradations of Slow Release (2015), suspended from the ceiling, is a three-metre tail of encrusted matter – wood, copper, Jesmonite, paper and paint – that pours like a filthy jet trail from a grimacing white head at one end. On a much smaller scale, the pinch-faced, 48 cm-high figure that is Roman Toilet (2014) is topped by a swirling turd-like coiffure: a teeming and striated mass that threatens to topple this fragile being backwards. (The figure has its tiny hands outstretched, in a gesture that clearly recalls Claude Cahun’s 1931–32 photograph I Extend My Arms: limbs apparently thrust from inside a stone monolith.) Roman Toilet is an allegory in miniature of the present tensions in David’s work: between rampant forms and contained but expressive physiognomies.

'Man's twenty-sixth excretion is himself.'
Christian Enzensberger, Smut: An Anatomy of Dirt (1972)

Where exactly, David would like to know, did the human face – and, especially, the category of expression – disappear to in the sculpture of the past century? The 19th century was obsessed by the project of anatomizing human expression: think of the photographs by G.B. Duchenne de Boulogne that the neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot reproduced, or Charles Darwin’s research on the subject, drawing on the ‘canonical grimaces’ in the busts of Franz Xaver Messerschmidt a century earlier. As David points out, 20th-century sculpture hardly lacks for expressive heads – in his own recent work, the attenuated figures of Alberto Giacometti are sometimes not far from mind – but facial expression is notably absent. In David’s latest sculptures, it’s a comic, grotesque and affective scandal appended to many of his works; the ‘limit’ of the sculpture is frequently and literally a terminal face with pained or delirious aspect.

The most minimal example of this last tendency is Tumult of Reserve (2015), where a tiny black resin head – below it, flat startled arms of a kind are spread like the wings of a manta ray – is perched atop a two-metre bamboo pole. The head and face have the look of a small wax doll, something fashioned for ritual or play; David speaks of his recent works as tools and toys. The face here is a good deal less realized than the seemingly young and female head that is perched, long-necked, at the end of Life Sentences (2014). This spindly bronze, just over a metre long, is essentially a line with limbs; pairs of arms grip the arms in front, until the front pair holds a printed sheaf of paper, which the face above is intently reading. This head is rapt, pointy-nosed and high-crowned, the whole figure self-involved despite its looking like it might spread or splay itself flat, wriggling awkwardly away like some learned insect. 

Fontanelle I, 2013, acrylic on canvas, 90 × 78 cm.

The heads and faces are not only punctuation marks at the ends of such svelte, elongated sculptures. Sometimes, as in Drainage (2014), they are isolated and enigmatic, their brows bisected vertically by the hollow form of a bone around which the material (Jesmonite again) has been cast. There’s a pun involved, of course – ‘bonehead’ – but also a kind of brute phallic intrusion, which is there, too, in the painting series ‘Fontanelle’ (2013–14). In each of these five works, a blurred homunculus in pink and grey gazes out, maybe grins, while twin pendulous forms envelop the little creature on either side. What exactly are we looking at? Ghostly, anthropomorphic cock and balls? Some obscure, etheric act of penetration? A head glutted figuratively as well as physically with anatomical thoughts? David’s little creatures look like they’ve crept from the paired imaginations of Georges Bataille and Odilon Redon.

'The face is at once the irreparable being-exposed of humans and the very opening in which they hide and stay hidden.'
Giorgio Agamben, Means Without End (2000)

It’s possible, and has been easier in the past, to spot such reference points as echoes in David’s work. A relation to surrealist art and writing is often manifest and it’s linked to a long-standing debt to psychoanalysis. (In advance of Darian Leader composing a catalogue essay for David, the artist submitted to regular sessions with the psychoanalyst and writer.) Consider Ultra Paste, the diorama he made for his solo show at the ICA in London in 2007. It depicts the artist’s childhood bedroom in Italy, designed by his father, and a supposedly young but curiously adult David rubbing himself against a mannequin. The work was based on Dora Maar’s 1935 photo-collage Vieille femme et enfant (Old Woman and Child), in which a young boy similarly presses himself against an old woman, while in the foreground muddy puddles reflect the ornate interior in which this perverse interlude is taking place. The Oedipal and excremental inferences are obvious in both Maar’s original and David’s repurposing of it. 

Untitled, 2014, celotex, expanding foam, fibre tissue, jesmonite, pigment and wire, 130 × 52 × 30 cm.

You could track or trace a similar selection of sources and citations in more recent work. Bataille is there, for sure, in the monstrous homunculi that seem actually to have lost their minds or brains. You could fancy that David’s obscurely ruminative heads, face down amidst the dirt, while their bodies writhe about in ecstasy or pain, resemble nothing so much as the half-crushed but pitifully optimistic narrators of Beckett’s fiction, with their dry, rustling, hobbled sexuality still extant while their noses are pressed to warm cowpats. David is happy to admit there is something fundamental afoot in his current sculptures, existential even, but not to embrace, not any longer, the idea that the work evokes or invokes a range of source material or research, analogues and echoes (though there is one notable exception in the Hepworth show). It’s a matter instead, now, of letting each sculpture be its abject eroticized self, explore once again the limits of its austere being.

'I'll let down my trousers and shit stories on them, stories.'
Samuel Beckett, The Unnamable (1953)

In at least one instance, for The Hepworth show, the limits of the sculpture have partly been determined already and not by the artist himself. David has borrowed a drawing of a horsefly by Sigmar Polke, a plan for an unrealized sculpture that he intends to make at the dimensions Polke originally imagined. It will be 1.8 metres tall, made of steel and either mounted on the gallery wall or hung from theceiling. David’s uncertainty on the last point is instructive: he is approaching the Polke drawing as he would one of his own, trying to imagine what the work lacks in two dimensions, what might be gained or lost by the translation from drawing to sculpture, how one thing could substantiate itself as another. It is possible, always, he says, that the sculpture will diminish the drawing, that the conversation between one form or medium or genre and another will end by doing some violence to one or the other. In this case, David will enact a small but striking perversion of Polke’s intentions for the work: his fly will have a face.

‘What is the shadow which casts the projection of its horned silhouette with incomparable power onto the wall of my room?’ 
Comte de Lautréamont, Les Chants de Maldoror (The Songs of Maldoror, 1868) 

In a catalogue essay for David’s 2013 solo exhibition at Michael Werner in London, Jonathan Miles noted that Giacometti preferred to see Jean Genet with his head shaved, because ‘hair was a lie’. It’s an apt anecdote in light of David’s present approach to his work: a narrowing of focus to sculpture or at least the transition from drawing to sculpture, a certain modesty of scale that means many of his new works could be held in the hand and, when grouped together, compose on their plinths a kind of community, hovering at the same level while they address us. When David talks about them resembling toys or tools, it’s partly this matter of scale that he has in mind; whereas the larger works are like bodies – one can imagine swapping places with them – the more recent sculptures are more likely to be the size of major bodily organs.

Untitled, 2015, wool on canvas, 2.6 × 1.9 m.

Which is also to say: the reduction that David talks about is not only or primarily a matter of scale, the practice of making or the artist’s formal address. It’s also a question of just what these forms have been reduced to, where they have ended up and in what predicament they find themselves. Time and again it seems to be something like Giorgio Agamben’s ‘bare life’, a state of almost-animal passivity and vulnerability, a being reduced to essentials. (Think of the mutilated Lavinia in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, 1588–93, of whom it’s asked: ‘What stern ungentle hands hath lopped and hewed and made thy body bare?’) Reduced to a trunk, a headless collection of limbs or an arc in space with a face at one end, David’s figures seem above all physically subtracted, even when there are several of them conjoined, as with the ten small bodies and heads in The Assumption of Weee (2014), which may be rising or declining together.

‘But I am a worm, and no man.’
Psalms, 22.6

Perhaps the artist’s most eloquent work in this respect is a low, limbed and hump-like sculpture titled Room for Small Head (Nadia) (2013). In Oslo, David came across a reconstructed Viking ship and spotted at the base of the mast a curving wooden form like a body prone on the deck, no more than a trunk and legs and two holes at one end that might be eyes: a minimal face. In David’s sculptural rendering, this thing, or being, looks reduced and ruined, stripped to its anthropomorphic fundamentals. But with its pale plaster ass in the air, it projects, too, an abstracted and passive eroticism: a withdrawal and an invitation. 

Enrico David lives in London, UK, and Ancona, Italy. His solo show at The Hepworth Wakefield, UK, opens on 13 November. This year, he has also had a solo exhibition at The Maramotti Collection, Reggio Emilia, Italy, and his work was included in group shows at L’École française d’Athènes, Greece; Rodeo, Istanbul, Turkey; and Whitechapel Gallery, London.

Brian Dillon is a writer. His latest book Affinities: On Art and Fascination will be published in spring 2023 by the New York Review of Books and Fitzcarraldo Editions, London. He is working on a book about Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love.