Sven 't Jolle

Stella Lohaus Gallery

The title of Luis Buñuel’s 1972 masterpiece The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie could well have been the credo for Sven ’t Jolle’s show of recent work. The actual title—“De betere klasse heeft ook recht op ontspanning!” (The better class also has a right to entertainment!)—certainly sounds like a never-made film by the Spanish director, and the similarities run deeper than mere titular resemblance. In ’t Jolle’s work as in Buñuel’s, irony, social problems, subversiveness, and political reflections are all mixed together in a lighthearted artistic survey of what is wrong with society.

One of the key installations in the show, Drawings sur Fond Rouge (all works 1998), centered around a copy of Fernand Léger’s Les Loisirs sur fond rouge (Leisure on a red background): The installation comprised over twenty mixed-media works in which a small black-and-white replica of Léger’s image appears at the center. In each case, ’t Jolle juxtaposes yesterday’s depiction of bourgeois leisure with contemporary agitprop. This would seem to be an attempt by the Belgian artist to rehabilitate Léger, who wanted to reach the working class but was adopted instead by the very bourgeoisie he had set out to critique. Next to this installation, under the title Social Plastic, the artist displayed a union member’s jacket, the kind worn by striking workers to mark their solidarity. The jacket was offered to gallery visitors (of the new so-called better class?) as a work of art, but it also brought to mind the recent closing of the Renault factory near Brussels, which resulted in thousands of workers being laid off. In drawings, photographs, and collages, ’t Jolle turns the victims into heroes and portrays the newspaper-reading intellectuals as cornpletely ignorant, showing their alleged social concern to be nothing more than a layer of politically correct varnish.

Despite the political content of his work, ’t Jolle manages to avoid the overt moralism of Hans Haacke, for example. In The Better Class, ’t Jolle reanimates an old painting by Kirchner, Davos. The original painting shows a romantic Swiss village, but in its new incarnation, the artist suggests no matter how idyllic the image, the actual place is now not much more than a harbor for the World Economic Forum, a yearly conference of rich industrialists and politicians who discuss how the world should be “managed” (remember Bill Gates arriving by helicopter, descending on this virginal landscape). Changing nothing of Kirchner’s original (he shows an antique replica), ’t Jolle is able to contrast then and now, exposing the way in which the (art)world gets colonized by power and money.

’T Jolle’s strongest statement is a double sculpture, Labourer with Balloonhat and Young and Ignorant. Like a cubist or African puppet, the worker, made out of polyester and painted red, is legless and armless. He seems totally helpless, standing with his back against the wall (in more ways than one), waiting to be taken away as garbage or, in this case, as a piece of art. Nearby is placed a statue—like a beautiful piece by Muñoz—of a rich young couple who seem to be looking at this grotesque monstrosity. Are they surprised, horrified, or filled with pity? One couldn’t help but wonder what the reaction of a real worker might be . . .

Jos Van den Bergh