New York

Jesper Just

Perry Rubenstein Gallery

It begins with a ringing phone. A middle-aged man picks up the receiver and begins, not the expected conversation, but a delicately sung duet with a much younger man on the other end of the line. Their facial expressions are difficult to read and their performances are highly mannered, but the exchange is obviously charged with emotion. The strangeness of the episode is amplified by its details: The protagonists are not only seated within earshot of each other in the same dimly lit club lounge but also surrounded by other men, each sitting by his own phone and apparently awaiting a similar call. As the senior vocalist delivers his final line, we see that the junior has slipped out of the room, leaving the receiver off the hook.

Jesper Just’s short film The Lonely Villa (all works 2004), shown on a wall-mounted monitor as part of the artist’s recent New York solo debut at Perry Rubenstein Gallery, is typical of the young Dane’s high style: The setting is moodily atmospheric; the camera work is smooth and cinematic; the narrative is ambiguous and left tantalizingly unresolved. And, as always, there’s a song—in this case the Inkspots’ “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire.” Just is evidently a firm believer in the enduring power of such sentimental ditties, making repeated use of them as platforms for the exploration of interpersonal relationships and filmic convention. Concentrating on exchanges between male characters (often of different generations) and employing professional actors, dancers, and singers (most regularly the charismatic Johannes Lilleøre), he constructs miniature epics that combine seductive visual allure with a dark, surreal undercurrent in a manner strongly reminiscent of David Lynch.

Lynch’s self-consciously overwrought emotional tone, which constantly verges on—and periodically explodes into—camp hysteria, is clearly echoed in Just’s Bliss & Heaven, which was shown as a cinema-scale video projection. Here a young man (Lilleøre) strides through a field of wheat, eventually arriving at a clearing and crouching down to watch as a truck pulls up. The driver of the truck gets out, opens the back of his vehicle, and clambers inside. Cautiously, Lilleøre follows, finding himself in a dark corridor that opens, impossibly, into a vast auditorium. He watches, transported, as the driver—now clad in long, blond wig and flowing silk scarf—launches into an impassioned rendition of Olivia Newton-John’s “Please Don’t Keep Me Waiting.” As he finishes the song, the driver staggers as if in pain, his hands raised defensively against the glare of the spotlight, and collapses to the floor before the curtain falls in front of him. Lilleøre, alone, applauds in stunned admiration.

The erotic frisson of the performance (itself modeled after one in Trent Harris’s cult movie The Beaver Trilogy [2001]) is unmistakable. In its theatrical delivery and ecstatic reception the performance recalls not only Dean Stockwell’s creepy lip sync to Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams” in Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986) but also Mia Kirshner’s nightclub striptease to “Everybody Knows” by Leonard Cohen in Atom Egoyan’s Exotica (1994). All three invest conventional love songs with a fetishistic edge.

Orbison crops up again in a third film by Just, No Man Is an Island II. Here, a slightly seedy mirror-clad bar is the scene of an a cappella take on the classic weepie “Crying.” But despite the setting, the effect is far removed from off-key karaoke. Lilleøre stars once more, leading his fellow drinkers (again older men) in a precise arrangement that leaves him suitably teary eyed. Despite its staginess, a situation that could easily tip over into comedy or kitsch is rendered genuinely affecting through the artist’s refusal to offer the comfort of explanatory context. In recognizing that Hollywood film and popular song have the power to transcend critical derision through their direct emotional appeal, Just has identified a direct route to the mysterious heart of relationships between men.

Michael Wilson