Fall Preview: Jesper Just's Schizo Enigma

Four films at the Brooklyn Museum of Art

The film opens with a disheveled young man hurrying through a wheat field and arriving at a remote power station. A mysterious tractor-trailer pulls up. The muscular driver, peering around suspiciously, leaves the cab to enter the back of the truck, and the young man, who's been hiding, follows him inside. Everything about the slickly produced sequence (harsh lighting, low camera angles, quick cuts) advertises a thriller. But the 2004 work, titled Bliss and Heaven, comes from the sly Jesper Just—one of four shorts by the Danish artist to be screened at the Brooklyn Museum of Art from September 18 to January 4—and nothing is what it seems.

The driver, it turns out, only wants to express his love—not by speaking (Just's films rarely contain dialogue), but by wearing a platinum wig and mournfully crooning, under a spotlight, a tune from Olivia Newton-John.

Though the bait-and-switch, a hallmark of Just's recent films, is startlingly funny, the filmmaker isn't going after easy comedy. Never more than 10 minutes long, his works are more like psychological experiments, testing our responses to noirish set-pieces veering off course. "The idea," explains the 34-year-old filmmaker on a recent stopover in New York, "is to use the well-known language of film to build up certain expectations . . . but then take those clichés and try to puncture them, turn them upside-down."

Noir meets Olivia Newton-John: Bliss and Heaven, 2004.
Courtesy the artist and Perry Rubenstein Gallery, New York

Noir meets Olivia Newton-John: Bliss and Heaven, 2004.

Mostly, Just plays with notions of masculinity. Grizzled toughs, jaded older men, and, very often, an angelic youth (the expressive Johannes Lilleore) suddenly defy their personas to make emotional connections through song or dance. The works often feel like the ends of complex dramas, when troubled characters finally break through their hardened shells. But Just gives their backstories only to his actors (for motivation), never revealing them to the viewer. So the unknown conflict is really only a MacGuffin, a device that gets Just to his central interest—"a critique," he says, "of mainstream culture, especially in gender issues."

Just puts a different spin on gender in his latest film, Romantic Delusions, a three-channel projection featuring Udo Kier (that frequently zombie-like film star) as a hermaphrodite who wanders through Bucharest. The character's duality, Just explains, represents the merging (and the clash) of East and West in Romania, opposites also mirrored in the film's music: The hermaphrodite, with a high-pitched voice dubbed by a countertenor, warbles over a death-metal track.

Filmed in 8mm, the work marks a return to Just's earlier documentary style. Shooting Romantic Delusions, he says, simply involved "going out with a vague idea and working in reality, and seeing what happens if you have a man with tits in Bucharest." In a tank top, gazing at his surroundings with his trademark ice-blue eyes, Kier strolls past drab apartment buildings, visits the enormous People's Palace, and finally ends up in a derelict casino on the Black Sea, where he participates in an eroticized tableau vivant. The journey's moods track the city's sudden architectural shifts, a jumble that Just calls "weird, schizophrenic, random, postmodern." The description works pretty well for the film, too—like Just's other work, it's absorbingly enigmatic.

Pawel Wojtasik: 'Like a Shipwreck We Die Going Into Ourselves'

September 18–November 1

Often seeming like outtakes from Antonioni films, Pawel Wojtasik's videos have examined the bleak endpoints of urban waste (sewage treatment, a landfill, a wrecking yard). Now, this Brooklyn-based artist turns his camera on another last-stop process, this time for the human body: the autopsy. Silent and shadowy, the work recalls Thomas Eakins's 1875 painting of surgery, The Gross Clinic, but Wojtasik gets you a lot closer to the body. Purplish skin, darkened cavities, and whorls of red viscera become almost abstract, filling the frame with a gruesome beauty. But it's not for the squeamish. Martos Gallery, 540 West 29th Street, 212-560-0670.

Jared Buckhiester: ‘She Sits Fey But Does She Pose Vogue’

September 19–October 26

At first glance, Jared Buckhiester’s drawings of the semi-rural South, rendered in gentle lines and soft shading, suggest the mild adventure of a children’s book. But then you notice that the grinning teenager under the trees is strangling a monstrous figure clad only in underwear, or that a Boy Scout is clutching a spear and threatening a compatriot, who has submissively torn open his shirt. A fine draftsman with a terrific eye for detail, Buckhiester captures that adolescent urge to turn even the most idyllic setting into a stage for exhibitionist fantasies about self-identity, aggression, and sex. Envoy, 131 Chrystie Street, 212-226-4555.

‘Second Lives: Remixing the Ordinary’

September 27–February 15

With its robot-like appearance and a sleek, remodeled interior, the monolith at 2 Columbus Circle has lost its kitschy charm, but gained a cultured occupant: the Museum of Arts and Design, which inaugurates its new location with a lively show dedicated to common objects and materials. Fifty artists blend a folk-art sensibility with structured invention. There’s Susie MacMurray’s elegant rubber-glove gown; an eight-foot pyramid built with plastic spoons and rubber bands by Jill Townsley; and Johnny Swing’s couch of 7,000 welded nickels. Don’t try this at home.Museum of Arts and Design, 2 Columbus Circle, 212-956-3535.
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