New York

Erik van Lieshout

Maccarone | 630 Greenwich Street

The camcorder-video installations for which Dutch artist Erik van Lieshout is best known transgress boundaries to push upon our society’s unspoken weak points. He is a crooked man in a crooked world, and his rebellion against decorum—whether he’s cajoling his gay brother into cruising Rotterdam’s immigrants, or teaching a Chinese woman how to pronounce the word feminism—has long functioned as a thorn in the side of social and political complacency. His utter disregard for courtesy, decorum, and deference often seems calculated to make us uncomfortable: While our curiosity compels us, for example, to look through a Duchampian hole in a door in Peep Show, 2007, do we laugh when we see the irreverent music video that plays on the other side, showing people bobbing their heads to a hip-hop tune as they pray at Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall?

Van Lieshout’s work is premised on our being voyeuristic about things we might rather not see. Through such a strategy, we are forced beyond mere acknowledgment of his political and social critique. That van Lieshout pushes at the limits of acceptability is precisely what takes his art into a new and troubling realm where we might willingly—or, perhaps, where we must—suspend any sense of propriety and face the consequences. It is essential to his project that nothing is kept hidden, including his own character: He is recklessly self-exposing. In a 2006 interview with the Dutch art magazine Metropolis M he said, “I have to be right inside the problem,” but he’s always part of the problem, too. It makes sense, then, that in several of his recent works he has turned the focus on himself. Up!, 2007, for example, takes as its subject his difficult relationship to his mother. At times unnervingly close to therapy, van Lieshout’s videos open a new front in the historical avant-garde’s project of undoing the distinction between art and life.

Sex Is Sentimental, 2009, the video that gave van Lieshout’s recent show at Maccarone its title, likewise concentrates on his real-life travails—specifically, in this case, on his sexual-romantic relationship with his assistant Suzanne, which he sees, initially at least, as conflicting with his artistic and personal independence. The twenty-one-minute video opens with his response to a text message telling him she’s coming to see him. Sitting on a couch in front of the camera, he talks about how he resents the intrusion: “What a drag. . . . I’m going to make art. Let her come if she likes.” As the work develops, it expands to consider lust, sex, attraction, self-doubt, loving art versus loving people, van Lieshout’s ideals, and selfishness in general. All this takes place in images as well as in words: Often, the artist speaks offscreen as we see fast-paced stop-motion animations of paintings and collages being made and revised in an analogue to his literal and metaphorical working through the situation. At one point he struggles to stand on his head in a field, shouting “For Suzanne!” In a later sequence of scribbled notes he asserts, NOW I WILL DO IT FOR MYSELF / NOT FOR YOU / NOT FOR LATER / ME NOW. Elsewhere, he modifies a photograph of French President Nicolas Sarkozy and five soldiers with speech bubbles, making each figure bluntly declare MOI! He also works on several large and messy “wild” paintings. These—like many of the drawings, pornographic collages, and altered photographs in the video—were on view in the second half of the exhibition, in Maccarone’s rear gallery, where their effect was drastically accentuated by our having been privy to the confused emotions that went into their making.

In a sense, one of the questions posed by his earlier works—What happens on the other side of shame?—might here be curiously, if tentatively, answered: The disinhibition that Sex Is Sentimental at once documents and represents holds open the possibility of both art and love. Still, everything remains complicated and compromised—for van Lieshout, evidently, who finds it difficult to come to terms with the very idea of a relationship; for his assistant, who has to deal with her private life being exposed in public (he draws angry eyes and blood on a photo- graph of her as he recounts how upset she was on being told he found “a new subject for a film and that’s you”); and certainly for us, too, as we take stock of this decidedly unheroic portrait of a struggling artist.

Alexander Scrimgeour