Enrico David's recent exhibition comprised mostly figurative, small-scale sculptures. Though a few pieces verge on preciousness, the best demonstrate how immediate sculpture can be when unburdened by excessive theoretical context. Whatever affects David's more haunting works activate in the viewer, they are left free to remain deeply subjective, like the vague but potent imagery of dreams.
The Italian-born, London-based artist has said, as quoted in the show's press materials, that his work appears “ridden with incompleteness: not fully formed.” Indeed, several of the most impressive sculptures, like Sun Leak (all works 2014), which looks like a human becoming a rock (the materials are Jesmonite and graphite), recall Michelangelo's “slaves” – those magnificent unfinished works that reveal the artist's struggle to liberate a human ideal from raw, imperfect marble. Two untitled works by David – one roughly female, with a distorted, still-buried face, and the other a nightmarish, Goya-like ectoplasmic profusion of disintegrated limbs and faces suspended from the ceiling with wire – likewise seem to strain the edges of their materials, as though still fighting to fully emerge.
Rodin created similar tensions in his practice: his twisting limbs, fragmented bodies and furrowed surfaces freed sculpture to express itself as process and energy, psychology and light, beyond mere representation. David is no Rodin; his work lacks the French sculptor's audacity and heroics. Still, Rodin and the modernist context he created provide an appropriate framework for examining David’s work, which seems concerned less with postmodern contingency and sociocultural flattening than with a desire to render motion, perspective, myth and the human subconscious.
David’s weaker works, like Roman Toilet – a delicate-limbed girl whose cascading bouffant is as big as she is – can be somewhat twee, offering characters more than figures, their seriousness undercut by a kind of adolescent,neo-Victorianism recalling Edward Gorey or Tim Burton. Most of the pieces are successful, however, giving form to what Roland Barthes describes as the “much livelier” Greek meaning of the word “figure”: “the body’s gesture, caught in action and not contemplated in repose.”
Such successes are rooted in tradition, reprising the primitive, the classical and the expressionistic. The bronze Life Sentences, a kind of human-insect hybrid holding an open book, recalls the stretched, metamorphosing bronzes by Germaine Richier. Putting Up With It and The Assumption of Weee each offer stacked successions of ghostly figures, one flowing into the next as though rising into motion like the subject in a Futurist painting or an Eadweard Muybridge photo series. And yet, these sculptures evoke nothing so strongly as the wraith-like bodies of Edvard Munch.
David develops his sculptural ideas in close tandem with his drawing practice, as demonstrated in this show through several works on paper, most of which resemble sculptures on view. One untitled pencil drawing, for example, mirrors one of the exhibition's best sculptures, Tools and Toys III, a vaguely humanoid figure that spreads wide its abstract limbs (a rare instance of joy?) and from which dozens of copper spindles radiate like the rays of the sun.
Together, the drawings and sculptures reveal David's artistic project as one that's studied, multi-stepped and constantly self-revising. In that context, we understand, as with Rodin, that the work’s transparently evolving aspect has something to say about the nature of being as a state of perpetual becoming.