In his seminal study of fascist psychology, Male Fantasies (1977), Klaus Theweleit defines the task of the fascist ‘man of steel’ as damming in ‘the horribly disorganized jumble of flesh, hair, skin, bones, intestines and feelings that calls itself human.’
This jumble is at the centre of Enrico David’s art practice, which encompasses sculptures in bronze, Jesmonite and other materials; wool tapestries; and drawings that form the foundation for other mediums. His abject humanoid objects often seem caught in the process of either incarnation or disintegration.‘Gradations of Slow Release’ at the MCA Chicago, David’s first US museum survey, begins with two works containing odd bodies: a faceless, high-heeled woman composed of tubular skeins of pink and black wool in the monumental tapestry Untitled (1999), and the life-sized wooden men of the exhibition’s only kinetic work, Untitled (Subjects) (2002), whose taut, stylized figures rotate on a platform.
Evoking Francis Picabia’s La Nuit espagnole (1922), as well as Art Deco and Wiener Werkstatte design motifs, these pieces are bizarre but recognizable. In the works that follow, the body degrades, deforms and departs into the unknown. A trunk-like Jesmonite base atop a patinated steel pedestal branches out into four entwined figures in Racket II (2017); the figure in Untitled (2015), meanwhile, has been contorted into an impossible Twister pose, its head slumped on the floor at a 90-degree angle from its torso. Elsewhere, the body seems to deliquesce into a bulbous mass, for instance, in the exhibition’s titular sculpture, from 2015. All that’s left of the human form caught in the work’s long, greenish ectoplasm, sculpted from a combination of wood, copper, Jesmonite, pigment and paper and suspended by wires from the ceiling, is a head thrust back in a pained or ecstatic grimace.
In recent years, David’s elegant, eccentric figures have morphed into a theatre of grotesque anatomies. The horizontal wall-mounted sculpture Restless (2017) reduces the body to a thin metal rod and looping wires. A flattened Jesmonite head seems either to ascend or impale itself on this pike. Its face, twisted into an anguished scream, is terrifying.
The open-plan survey format sacrifices the cloistered ambiance of David’s recent exhibitions at Michael Werner Gallery in New York and Blum & Poe in Los Angeles, both enhanced by the galleries’ hardwood floors and townhouse-like architecture. Yet the chronological and material range at the MCA illuminates stylistic and thematic nodes in the artist’s practice without asserting a cohesive narrative.
David begins by gathering visual fragments in his drawings, some of which he resolves n three dimensions as sculptures. The subtlety of his graphite-sketched bodies, their edges trailing off into the white abyss of the page, becomes a blunt physical presence both uncanny and perverse.
Symbols of domesticity make their way into his repertoire: an inverted figure compressed into an end-table base (Untitled, 2018), as though assaulted by furniture, or an acrylic painting of a howling, disembodied face slotted into the steel lattice base of another table-like sculpture (Untitled, 2011). Such works challenge the conventional boundaries between art and design, but also the boundaries between bodies and the environments contain them. David’s works challenge the illusion of sublimation, letting loose the jumble of flesh and skin and bone that calls itself human.
Enrico David, 'Gradations of Slow Release' runs at Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, until 10 March 2019.
Main image: Enrico David, Untitled (detail), 1999, wool and acrylic on canvas, 300 × 220 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Michael Werner Gallery, London/New York/Märkisch Wilmersdorf