Enrico David: Dropping the Masks
Elke Buhr
September 2011

The euphoria felt by new arrivals to Berlin is always contagious. Enrico David has shelved a few books and hung up his favorite pictures. If he wanted he could go rollerblading around the cavernous old apartment in the far west of the city which has been his studio and home for several weeks. 'You don't need any furniture in those rooms, they're complete without it,'he says. And sticks by his words. As regards interior decorating the Italian is evidently an ascetic.

Indeed, he loves simplicity in all things: 'I like it that there's little information here I can relate to,'he says. 'Not speaking the language I can shut off most of the background noise, on the streets I don't stumble into artists or the art world. That displacement is something that deep down I still recognize as important.'

Content, David sits on his kitchen chair and bites into a piece of cake. A large man in a coarse shirt, who likes to contrast his manliness now and then with a coquettish look, charming, funny, eloquent. It's not that easy to associate his appearance with the man behind the impressive paintings which were on show this spring at Enrico David's Berlin gallery VeneKlasen/Werner and in summer at the Fondazione Bevilacqua La Masa'parallel to the Venice Biennale. Ghosts walk through these works, tortured spirits struggling to attain a shape.

A Z-shaped line becomes the prison for a vaguely sketched head with a lolling tongue and strange blotches beneath the eyes. A melancholy profile emerges from an Art Nouveau ornament. In a zigzag pattern on a bright yellow background there is a screaming face. Several canvases have extreme formats, squares whose edges are 2.4 meters long. They overpower you with stark graphic elements, geometrical patterns and monochrome surfaces. But the figures in them are always delicately sketched, only barely defined, about to disappear.

Alongside the paintings there are felt-pen drawings: two heads, pressed against each other as if contained in a test tube, a man's face with his mouth wide open as though he is screaming. In linocut Enrico David also succeeds in presenting a face and an underlying feeling with just a few lines.

In these works David explores the melancholy of existence. He sketches identity in the embryonic stage. Suffering that is not even allowed the minimum, namely to gain clear lines and express the pain. 'In a way the paintings and sculptures that I showed in Berlin were works that reconnected with what I was doing 20 years ago. They're sort of my archetype of expression, which was still a starting point even if I couldn't really process at the time. And that's where I find myself again today. Now I can stand by them and understand them as necessary and inevitable,'says David of the latest phase, in which his works have taken on a new, existential quality.

Seen from the vantage point of these paintings his earlier work can suddenly be understood as a mask that concealed the screaming ghosts, and it was not for nothing that the mask was the central symbol in them. In the 1990s David entered the art scene as a theatricalist who painted or sometimes embroidered on the canvas harlequins and showgirls in extremely reduced forms, two-dimensionally like cut-outs, who depicted whispering geishas in austere lines, carved clowns in plywood and had figurines dance like those by Oskar Schlemmer.

David's stage was London, where he ended up as a 19-year-old after a half-hearted 12-month stint studying languages. Born in Ancona in 1966, he followed friends' advice and enrolled at the Central Saint Martin's Art School. 'I really wish I could have been a product designer or something like that. That would have been much easier. But there are too many things left out of those fields. There, it is all about solutions, whereas art highlights problems, and that for me signified a safer harbor, certainly a more realistic one. So I started to accept myself as an artist.'

Whether he is talking about himself or his art, David always comes back to the concept of process. His philosophy revolves around evolving, his self-image, the experimental spelling out of his own self. Homosexuality is another level in this game, his coming-out in London, and only years later with his family in Ancona. 'Using masks in my work was about responding to an instinct ' a reflex to do with disguise, with acting unobserved and at the same time adapting. It wasn't until much later that I understood the possibility of the mask and the 'character' as a vehicle, a part in a queer narrative, both in a sexual sense and in a broader sense as linguistic aberration.'

The elements of his artistic code with which he gave visual form to all of this in his paintings he found in both Modernism and simple forms of Folk Art. He taught himself weaving and embroidery: 'Learning the methods acted as a metaphor for learning about myself, an intuitive device to represent that drive.'

This experimental spirit is also palpable in his sculptures: precarious objects made of papier-mâché with collaged photos, wire, adhesive tape and found stones struggling for their existence. 'I like the idea of a kind of emergency production,'David says. Regardless of the medium chosen it is about releasing inner images and not about elaborating them down to the last detail. Perfectionism, he thinks, would be inappropriate. But this is hard to believe when you examine the 12- year-old, man-sized figure of a harlequin David has hung in his studio'the fine threads, some of which are worked in silver, extend so delicately across the canvas.

Artistic talent runs in the family: his mother was a seamstress, his brother works with leather, his sister restores old fabrics. And his father was something like an interior designer: 'Quite an inventive guy and in many ways an eccentric,'says David. 'As a totally self-taught person he set up a company that designed and produced interiors for shops and homes, also designing neon signs for shops.'His father died when David was 17. He was given valium before the funeral, passed out and only came to when it was all over. He had missed the moment to say goodbye.

David sees a major work of 2007 as marking the end of his dealing with the sense of loss he did not see through to the end. The installation 'Ultra Paste'is based on a replica of the chic green room Enrico's father designed for his son and in which the youth endured his puberty. In one corner a young man rubs himself against a wooden puppet figure, almost as though masturbating, while an oily-brown liquid spreads out over the floor.

Behind the personal recollection the lonely, slightly self-ironic coming-of-age scene conceals a dream image from art history: a collage by the French Surrealist Dora Maar from 1935 in which, in a similar setting, a much younger boy presses himself against an old woman.

Enrico David has a good feel for such absurd finds. Another is a child's toy that is truly sinister in its absurdity. It was designed in 1905 by Koloman Moser, co-founder of the Vienna Secession. It is a man with skinny legs rocking on runners and with a much too large, round head, which David copied as a life-sized sculpture, using a photo as his face ('Absuction Cardigan' 2009). In this ridiculous egg-man David indulges in using openly sexual allusions to give an ironic twist to the habitually somewhat snobbish reverence paid to Modernism. He often likes to evoke the connection between the frequent occurrence of checkered patterns in his works'specifically in the series 'Shitty Tantrum'(2006-7)'and the structure that results from a certain perspective of the scrotum.

But these are more the humorous footnotes to his work, which compared with that by some of his fellow artists from the London scene does not like to adorn itself with vulgarity. In 2009 the 'contemporary Surrealist' as he was called by the London Tate Modern, was nominated for the Turner Prize (fresco painter Richard Wright went on to win it).

David considered it a great experience: 'It was a theatrical moment, and quite unique in the way that art is 'used' by an institution and a country to collectively verify their interests in it. In a sense as an artist you end up providing a service, delivering something that looks like art for an audience that expect you to do just that.'David further stressed the idea of the collective show and built an installation on a stage together with the egg-man and harlequins.

For David, being nominated for the Turner Prize marked the point at which he had completely penetrated the mentality of the British art public, the love of pop culture, the narrative. The offer of a fellowship in Basel was opportune: 'I needed that distance from the familiarity of London. It allowed me to reconsider certain positions regarding my own work and reconnect with a type of tradition I view as poetic in the making of images.'Lyrical, elementary: and David accordingly gave the creatures full rein that in his paintings, drawings and sculptures now seem to dig their way forward and down into some pre-linguistic world.

In Berlin he wants to continue savoring what he came to appreciate in Basel. Plenty of space for working, a sense of the unfamiliar, the resonance of central European cultural history. 'Berlin is still very much like a city 'in progress', while at the same time bearing enormous gravitas and heaviness. It's a city towards which I never had any particular desire, a place I never fantasized living in, and that detachment is something that right now works for me.'Enrico David's blue motor scooter is out front. Just the right vehicle for a specialist of foreignness in motion.