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.

'Seed Stage'

October 3­–January 4

Corin Hewitt has sculpted an eight-foot marble statue of weatherman Willard Scott and cast a 21-foot rainbow out of street sweepings, but now he's exploring smaller, transient art as a performer and, notably, as a student of food photography and Ikebana. In a room that allows visitors to watch through apertures, Hewitt will grow, cook, and freeze various items, then assemble the results—along with inedible objects—into still-lifes which he'll photograph; finally, he'll post the pics each day. It's something like Emeril investigating Conceptualism. Whitney Museum of American Art, 945 Madison Avenue, 212-570-3600.

Martín Ramírez: The Last Works

October 7­–April 12

The American Folk Art Museum's 2007 exhibit on the enchanting work of self-taught artist Martín Ramírez—a Mexican immigrant institutionalized in the 1930s as a schizophrenic—gets a sequel with newly found drawings from the artist's last years. In the same woodcut-like style, Ramírez continued combining his beloved motifs (trains, tunnels, Madonnas) into fragmented memories and metaphors for isolation. American Folk Art Museum, 45 West 53rd Street, 212-265-1040.

'The Meat Show'

October 9–November 8

This is what you call raw art: Heide Hatry, the daughter of a Bavarian pig farmer and an artist who once wallpapered a room with a porker's skin, has assembled a wild survey of the meanings of meat. Central to the show are Carolee Schneemann's notorious sex-with-chickens dance orgy from 1964, Meat Joy, and Zhang Huan's stroll through Manhattan in a muscled costume of dark-red beef. Other trenchant works include Tamara Kostianovsky's sirloin mimicry with fabric, Jenny Walton's painting of an oozing wound, and Betty Hirst's figures carved from frozen roast, which bleed as they thaw. Be forewarned: After staging a similar show, Hatry became a committed vegetarian. Daneyal Mahmood Gallery, 511 West 25th Street, 212-675-2966.

Kenneth Anger

October 19–January 26

A mix of Jean Cocteau fantasy, German Expressionist theatrics, Aleister Crowley’s occult teachings, and homoerotic imagery, the films of Kenneth Anger (screened here in a retrospective) occupy a special corner in the avant-garde. A serious practitioner of black magic, Anger regarded many of his efforts—particularly the 1972 foray into Egyptian esoterica, Lucifer Rising—as transforming. Though they sometimes rival the costumed camp of a Hammer horror flick or look as dated as a chest medallion, the films are still a heady kick. P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, 22-25 Jackson Avenue, Long Island City, 718-784-2084.

Mary Heilmann: To Be Someone

October 22–January 26

Sometimes, after yet another museum stroll past dispassionate blocks of color, you wish that the avatars of Formalism could have chilled out a little. So hug blithe Mary Heilmann, the relatively unsung painter who came late to the abstraction party, but has been delighting the guests ever since. Among other colorful riffs on her rigid predecessors, she playfully loosens a taut Agnes Martin grid, rescues an Ad Reinhardt cross from dense gloom and decorates it, and turns Rothko's layers into a Carnegie Deli sandwich. The long-overdue retrospective, which also includes Heilmann's ceramics and furniture, might just leave you giddy. New Museum, 235 Bowery, 212-219-1222.

'Afghanistan, or The Perils of Freedom'

November 7–January 25

Now that Afghanistan has finally returned to the public consciousness, Stephen Dupont's first solo show in the U.S. is a timely one. The award-winning photojournalist presents the facts with an artful touch, in haunting black-and-white images. A man's hunched silhouette is a mournful twin of the shadowed hole in the mountain behind him, where once stood the Buddha statues destroyed by the Taliban. A blurred shot of a screaming baby—whose face appears disturbingly inhuman—suggests both abject despair and the viewer's fleeting sympathy. In other portraits, taken by the roadside in Kabul, Dupont captures the weary dignity of a country beleaguered by endless war. New York Public Library, Stokes Gallery, Fifth Avenue at 42nd Street, 917-275-6975.

'Apocalyptic Pop'

November 16–January 25

Leave it to TODT, the 30-year-old anti-authoritarian art collective, to weaponize farm machinery. The group—who (the story goes) named themselves after Hitler's first minister of armaments, Fritz Todt— has attached a deadly crossbow to an old-fashioned plow and added a few more nasty scythes to a reaper, making it a bit more grim. This exhibit of zany doomsday visions also includes D. Dominick Lombardi's diseased cartoon figures, Chitra Ganesh's gonzo interpretations of myths, Michael Zansky's Surrealist photographic nightmares, and Laura Parnes's video montages of TV catastrophe. Dorsky Gallery, 11-03 45th Avenue, Long Island City, 718-937-6317.

Trenton Doyle Hancock: New Work
November 20–January 3

An ape man masturbates in a field of flowers and produces a species of animal/plant mutants called Mounds, who end up battling the evil Vegans despite having Torpedo Boy as a protector. So runs the story behind the freakish paintings of the fiercely imaginative Trenton Doyle Hancock. Here, Hancock presents new scenes of the subterranean Vegan world—dense, intricate works of explosive color with roots in underground comics, biblical conflict, and Dr. Seuss. James Cohan Gallery, 533 West 26th Street, 212-714-9500.

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