Surrealism has long been an influence on Enrico David (b. 1966), whose work harks back to an indefinable chapter of the early twentieth century. The blanket impression produced by his latest exhibition at Michael Werner Gallery (closed 16th November) was of an exquisitely arrayed private collection with a predilection for Modernist primitivism, Surrealist drawings and the occasional biomorphic tapestry design executed in subdued earth tones.
David’s miscellaneous media and subjects made this exhibition difficult (and knowingly so) to judge in its totality. Throughout, however, the artist seemed to be willing us not to take his work too seriously. Room for a small head (Nadia) (2013; cat. no.4; Fig. 53), a plaster sculpture prostrate on the floor, succeeded in being clumsy and graceful in the same moment, recalling both a sprawled Brancusi sculpture and a humpbacked organism of indeterminate genus. Surreal odies also appeared in a sequence of large watercolours: Mother Tunnel (2013; no. 1) portrayed a cluster of conical paper lanterns – or the furling petals of a tulip – with a doleful face at their centre. Freudian intimations of female anatomy collided with jokey anthropomorphism. The piece’s large scsale worked paradoxically to dampen its impact, as if a postage-stamp curio had been writ too large.
Such a slippage between mirth and solemnity proved to be the exhibitions defining tension. Items of furniture, apparently construed from wire or pipe cleaners, had been cast on the ‘exalted’ medium of bronze. Yet these objects were mock-serious – fractionally too small to be functional and raised off the floor on pedestals. The semblance of furniture was a guise; it transpired that these were contortionist ‘figures’ equipped with miniature heads and hands. Through shifting appearances, David’s art expresses the contrariness of bodies (human or preternatural ones), communicating their dual elegance and absurdity. David’s refusal to conform to a style or genre – or even a consistent emotional register – has been interpreted as camp playacting, but ‘Modernism’ seems an equally apt term.