The bold and the beautiful
Enrico David talks to Rosie Lesso about the uncomfortable themes that run through his work
Italian-born, London-based artist Enrico David showed the exhibition Ultra Paste in late 2007 at London’s ICA, where it received significant critical praise. In fact, since 2001 his reputation has grown so considerably he is now regarded as one of the most exciting artists working in the UK today. So, if we believe the hype, the Talbot Rice’s second run with Ultra Paste has been worth the wait. But what exactly has made David’s eclectic and bizarre practice so popular?
Perhaps in part it is his frank self effacement; looking inward provides David with rich source material, particularly when he does not like what he finds. For instance, in ‘Ultra Paste’, the central work in the show, David has inserted a photograph of himself as a teenager into a recreated installed version of his own childhood bedroom. Here we see David caught in a private unspeakable or ‘shameful’ embrace with an anatomical mannequin, with the audience forced into the role of voyeur, viewing the scene through a roped off doorway.
In exposing himself David also exposes the viewer and makes them face their own dirty secrets. ‘I’m still discovering how intimate it is to make work,’ says David, ‘and how much the work reflects a lot of dynamics that have marked me as a person.’ His lack of ego is refreshing; the practice of making art is not a means for flamboyance or narcissism but ‘an embarrassing gesture . . . because you’re exposing things that are perhaps surprising to yourself.’ It is no accident then that masks, the most prominent concealors of shame, are present throughout his work.
This personal approach is tempered by David’s stylistic appropriation. Sources of inspiration include 1920s Picasso, Jean Cocteau and Joe Orton, and more predominantly design styles such as Italian Carnivalesque and Art Deco. He says: ‘I often borrow from traditional techniques and design styles, using their pre-given rules and functional potential in an attempt to organise and give structure to the often chaotic nature of my emotional response to reality’. These stylistic variations feed into his multifarious practice including drawings, paintings, sculptures and installations, making each work part collective, part personal memory. And the structure or order of which David speaks often takes its form in a theatrical manner, where props, collage elements or drawings are arranged sparsely and carefully, indicative of strange or disturbing narratives, as in the series ‘Shitty Tantrum’.
Language is also a source of fascination for the artist, stemming partially, perhaps, from the fact that he is bilingual. In Ultra Paste it is the titles which give this away, as well as exposing his childish sense of humour. They range from the puerile and scatological ‘Shitty Tantrum’ to the more elaborate and ridiculous ‘Mudhippy turns mother and two daughters into mature cheddar’. David’s practice is intentionally slippery, such titles adding to this fact, but what Ultra Paste does highlight, very intelligently, is the relationship between the personal and the eclectic, resulting in imagery which is stylish, bold, yet disturbingly familiar.
Enrico David: Ultra Paste, Talbot Rice Gallery, University of Edinburgh, until Sat 10 May.