There’s a plethora of bizarre bodies in the intriguing, provocative Enrico David exhibition at The Hepworth Wakefield, in which nothing is exactly as it seems. Bodies can multiply in fused layers, sprout spikes or display strange cavities created by inlaid slices of marrow bone. These odd beings are androgynous but at the same time unsettlingly erotic – sometimes they look as if they could have served some ritual function for a long-forgotten and slightly sinister civilization.
Enrico David was born in Ancona on the eastern coast of Italy and moved to London in the late 1980s before graduating in fine art from Central St Martins in 1994. I first encountered his work a few years later when he was making enormous, immaculately-executed embroideries featuring masked, faceless cat-suited figures striking extravagant poses across expanses of mottled, hand-dyed canvas. Charles Saatchi featured them alongside the pots of Grayson Perry and the strutting, lewdly thunderous sculpture of Rebecca Warren in a show called New Labour, which certainly had nothing to do with Tony Blair.
With David you never know what to expect – his sources have ranged from craft, folk art and design to advertising and gay pornography – but he continuously presents mutated human forms and a love of manipulating a wide range of materials. When he was shortlisted for the Turner Prize in 2009, among the works he showed was an installation based on his childhood bedroom – featuring a small boy having an unsettling encounter with a matronly figure – and a sculpture called Chicken Man Gong: in which a metal dish sprouted tail feathers, an elongated head and stood on spindly fish-netted legs.
At Hepworth David’s love of drawing comes to the fore, with works on paper evolving into enigmatic, psychologically-charged sculpture. A luminous combination of pencil and watercolour, which looks like something Joseph Beuys could have made in one of his wilder moments, becomes a knobbly, stacked arrangement of horizontally-hovering figures and spare limbs, fashioned from verdigris pigment-steeped resin and suspended by wires. Elsewhere, a small spindly study of a weirdly compressed face-down figure, cheek pressing into the floor and backside aloft as it hugs an extra limb, becomes immeasurably more bizarre when assuming three dimensions and expanded to near life size. Is s/he crumpled in despair, or blatantly offering a sexual service? There are no clues from the faintly grimacing face.
It’s almost as if the framed drawings and small plinth-bound sculptures in the modestly-dimensioned first gallery have been permitted to get down and dirty and disport themselves in the lofty two-storey space next door, where many seem still to be figuring out quite who or what they are. One spindly insect-like creature sporting a Mary Quant bob and multiple limbs is actually reading an Enrico David catalogue essay, as if that might help. Androgynous and ambiguous, David’s personages prop against walls, hug the floor or hang from the ceiling, populating an environment that seems as much like a piazza or a landscape as a gallery. Although richly textured and made with an evident relish for materials, it is often unclear what they are actually made from: bronze is patinated to resemble rusty cast iron, resin is mixed with pigment to resemble stone, copper, wood or ivory; while in one work bone is cast in bronze and then re-painted to look like bone again.
At times the three-dimensional sculpture seems poised to revert back again into drawing. Brown paper masquerades as sheet metal with trompe l’oeil volume and detail drawn in graphite onto its surface, while a procession of lofty figures which reach up the full height of the gallery to the ceiling are rendered from paper-thin, silk screened aluminium. Yet strange as this all is, the overall result is to intrigue rather than to alienate, and there’s a touching and surprisingly human vulnerability about these uncertain but compelling creatures and their shifting moods and circumstances.
Enrico David is at The Hepworth Wakefield until 24 January