Enrico David – Assault on the Egg
Reading the literature on Enrico David is a curious experience. We find detailed descriptions of his embroideries, sculptures, gouaches and installations, and careful catalogues of his range of references: Arte Povera, assemblage, Art Deco, Avant Garde theatre design and more. The media and traditions he draws on are mapped out with precision, yet, with one or two exceptions, this literature is strangely inconclusive. We are told what the work IS yet never what it is ABOUT. We learn exactly what David does with his hands but not why he is doing it, as if the whole gamut of art historical references were lacking a conceptual, critical frame. The emphasis remains almost entirely on the visual – and this is especially curious when we remember that David does not consider himself primarily as a visual artist.
What sense can we make of this apparent paradox? David’s work first became prominent with his dazzling series of embroideries, depicting enigmatic harlequin-like figures in dance or movement. The bright, hard-hitting colours and seductive textures gave them an immediate vital tone, and there was a certain ambiguity around their gender. “These figures”, says David, “displayed an energetic indifference”, and their bodies were constructed out of segmented, differential elements: bands, tubes or ribbons. “They were composites”, David observes, “bodies in the process of being made”. In the poses they struck, they seemed like figures from a tableau vivant or dumb show. Facial expressions were opaque, and the heads tended to be anomalous, separated from the rest of the body by a disguise and made from different stuff. For David, these figures were ‘masks’, and he notes the irony that it was a depiction of concealment that first brought a public eye to his work.
These simple, startling pieces had two features that would be developed in David’s subsequent work. First of all, the segmentation of the body into a patchwork of elements introduces the design motif that is so essential to his vision. Parts of the body form design motifs or, more frequently, actually unravel into the symmetries and linear rhythms that we associate with design traditions. The closed curves and contours of the human form become the repetitive lines of pattern and motif. Whereas in the embroidery pieces, these lines were internal to the figure, now the body literally decomposes into them.
In the Venice piece ‘Untitled’ (2003), a female body unfurls into a linear design pattern, her limbs elongating until all that’s left are stark residual loops and lines. The Wizard’s Sleeve tapestries stage the same metamorphosis, as we witness the spatial splitting of the figure and its decomposition into the motifs of design. These strange and fascinating transformations pose the question of the limits of the body, and of the presence of the body in abstraction. If abstraction is about the reduction of an image or form to a minimal separation of lines, David’s work both puts the body back into abstraction – and of course design – and removes it.
Part of the complexity of these pieces is this interplay between unveiling and defence. Is the metamorphosis into line a way of warding off the proximity of the body or, on the contrary, of showing us that the body is always there even in the arrangement of lines that we associate least of all with the flesh? As David says, “There’s an unknown distance between me and the female body”, and this distance is exactly the space of the linear separation of surfaces. The works both stage a kind of ‘return of the repressed’ of design, and perpetuate the act of repression itself by housing the body in the apparent symmetry of the formal language of design.
This housing, like the act of repression, never quite works, and David shows us time and time again how the transformation into linear design always leaves a bodily remainder, something unabsorbable. This could take the form of a part of the body, like a head or a limb, or of an excrescence, an obtrusion that sprouts from a surface or pattern. And this brings us to the second feature that haunts David’s work: an impossibility internal to bodily form.
Reversing the Aristophanic myth of the egg-like being split into two, searching for completion in its other half, for David the two halves never make a whole. In the embroideries, the heads are incompatible, different from the rest of the body, as if whatever one did to the image it could never be rendered uniform or constitute a single space. The body becomes a space of two contradictory and anomalous elements. This is exactly the motif we find in the sculpture that David considers his first authentic work, made while still a student at St Martins: a male body on top of a pole extends down via a long wire to a tyre. With this simple work David uses an initial bodily form to create a hole, a spatial structure made of at least two elements which cannot be made to coalesce, to become one unbroken space. Instead, David has created a field, in the sense of a space in which the presence of certain forces prohibits a unification.
We could think here of the books often given to infants which present images of human or animal bodies with one small area made from a different material. The idea is for the child to touch that particular part of the image and enjoy the new sensation of a novel texture. Infants are perhaps less captivated by this than one might wish, yet the endless publication of these books brings out something more structural: don’t they show, like David’s work, that the body cannot be reduced to one homogenous surface, that there will always be an anomalous element which blocks its unification? This is brought out beautifully in a 1994 work, in which a two-dimensional girl painted on canvas lies on a three-dimensional pillow with her head drawn onto it. Or in ‘Measure of Disagreement’, in which the symmetry of a pair of stylised two-dimensional linear bodies is broken by the presence of a box containing a small sculpture. The body cannot be reduced or unified here without violence or rupture, as its space is made of disparate elements, which can never be collapsed to a single surface without a remainder.
David’s assault on the Aristophanic egg is continued in his most recent work, ‘How do you love dzzzzt by mammy?’ which elaborates both a visual and a spatial tension. A series of photos of a snarling man are juxtaposed with two superb rocking eggs ordained with a painted face. The eggs had been inspired by images of a 1910 Viennese children’s toy and the man’s image is taken from a gay mail-order catalogue. “There is a gridlock”, David says, “between the man’s gaze and the eggs”, as if the internal division of much of the earlier work now becomes inscribed in space itself. It seems from many angles as if the eggman is missing a head, inviting us to interpret the face on the wall as the inassimilable missing part. Similarly, the black sides of the eggman echo the black T-shirt of the figure on the wall, as if to suggest that they are aspects of the same body, yet split across the gallery space. The impossibility of mapping the two spaces onto each other blocks once again any hope of bodily unification.
But why this odd juxtaposition of objects? David was fascinated with the artificiality of the pose and the absurdity of the model’s expression. This was exactly the same feeling he had when he first saw the image of the Viennese toy, and it’s one of the reasons he decided to create a work which brought them together. The man in the mail-order catalogue was supposed to be exemplary, representing the ultimate in a gay man’s self-image. For David, his own sexuality is “a further complication to an identity already in crisis”: an individual trying to find a place in a world which tended to deprive him of one. But what kind of place was this ridiculous snarling expression in the catalogue? The image was so triumphant, the very opposite of David’s experience, and at the same time so false. It was a pure mask, yet hadn’t so much of David’s work until now been about exactly that production of masks and disguises?
The image was thus both true and false. And its connection to the eggmen developed another crucial theme around sexuality. Before making this work, David had produced a series of scrotal lamps, the shades of which resembled the testicular sack. He explained the lamps at the time as the effort to make something that if it failed as sculpture could be used as furniture, yet beyond this lies the very simple logic of use based on impasse. If the balls weren’t going to be used to make babies, they could make lamps, and, better still, in the new work, they could form eggs, the very matter of reproduction.
The eggs thus index a form of creation that bypasses sexual reproduction. They show what can be done with a pair of balls. And at the same time they situate, for David, the precariousness of existence. Unsure whether he was wanted as a child, the blobby eggmen objectify, for David, his own place in the world: ineffable and absurd, they embody both the idea of not fitting in (from the moment of being an egg) but also what it means to exist perpetually under a disapproving and judgemental gaze, incarnated here by the angry look of the figure on the wall. The confusion and opacity that surrounded his entry into the world is echoed precisely in the title of the new show: ‘How do you love dzzzzt by mammy?’. “If I deliver unclarity”, says David, “it’s because I’ve received unclarity. You asking me what the title is about IS what the title is about”.
The sense of isolation, anomaly and being out of place that David describes seem in stark contrast to the harmony and charm of the childhood photographs that feature in the new show and on the cover of his catalogue. They had been taken by a friend of David’s father as publicity shots for a range of musical instruments marketed for children, and represent a unique time for the artist. His father had accompanied him on the shoot, and afterwards they had their picture taken together in a rare moment of companionship. The special intimacy they enjoyed that day stands out in David’s childhood. The photos, then, mark a time when David did have a place, yet, and this is the key detail, they involved him entering a visual language, a code of production, dress and behaviour. In other words, the sign of love coincided with the presence of a mask.
These masks have obviously formed a central thread in David’s work. Each piece, he says, “presents a version of myself, a mask”. But there is a contingency to the mask, and David knew that he had to find something else, something that could situate the mask, anchor it. And this brings us back to the question we posed at the start: why does so much of the writing about David just chart the range of his references without saying much about the work itself? Yet this very emphasis on surface features gives us the crucial clue.
Confronted with the question of knotting his practice with his place in the world, David says “I need to root myself. I try to stabilise my experience of being in the world with things connected to a tradition”. Why? “Because tradition gives a place, a sense of belonging”. And tradition here means language for David. The formal features of different artistic and design traditions that figure so prominently in his work are there as languages, and he makes things, he says, “to illustrate a script”. Using traditions is like “inhabiting languages”, and David sees no discontinuity between his early studies of language and literature and his later artistic practice. In fact, he sees himself more as a writer and linguist than visual artist.
Even his work in a marketing company to support himself in his studies could form part of this project. “My drive is to mimic and imitate languages”, and when marketing “I was mimicking, posturing and grafting all day long. I’d pretend to have ownership of a language”, exactly as in his later work as an artist. Making art for David involves “looking for a language”, a phrase that we should take quite literally. Once we understand his references as languages, the priority given by critics to these sources over any question of meaning or intention takes on a new sense: less to find a meaning beyond the languages than in the actual handling of the languages themselves. What seemed to be the critical aporia is thus the thing itself.
For David, artistic practice is a kind of writing, and his real tools are less plaster, paint, brush and fabric than the linguistic units and sequences of the histories of art and design. As he says, “I see the potential of the creative process as a representation of a new language…The use of language, whether representational or written, provides me with an opportunity to give physical form to my need for discontinuity, disruption and misuse which is at the core of my practice”. And at the same time, to search for languages that would provide a continuity or a compass, a sense of ownership of something that can only really belong to others.