Erik van Lieshout, as the central protagonist in his films, is brash and irreverent, offensive and silly, crude and reckless, yet retains a playful innocence that disarms both his viewers and the people who appear on-screen. He uses his own personality as an intentionally blunt instrument to antagonize or interrogate the world around him, amplifying his own base instincts to write large those inner thoughts regarding class and privilege we would prefer to keep unspoken.
On entering “I am in heaven,” van Lieshout’s first solo show at Anton Kern Gallery, the viewer immediately encountered the darkened entrance to a tunnel leading to a dimly lit, patchily carpeted projection space where van Lieshout’s WORK (2015) played. The film is a behind-the-scenes record of his recent productions, incorporating footage from The Workers (2013) and The Basement (2014), films commissioned for the Venice Biennale and Manifesta, respectively. It unashamedly documents his search for artistic material among the social workers in his family, Rotterdam harbor workers and cat rescuers at St. Petersburg’s State Hermitage Museum, candidly revealing the inherent political, social and economic tensions that encircled him as he navigated relationships with collaborators, subjects, art institutions and the public.
Through a side door in the cavelike installation, visitors entered the regular gallery space, whose white walls were filled with large-scale, energetic drawings in charcoal and vinyl, based on newspaper photographs of street protests and demonstrations. These works reduced the original images to their basic elements with messiness intact, capturing the movement and high emotion of the original events.
In WORK, van Lieshout’s claustrophobic closeness to the camera mirrors a similar proximity to the subjects in his drawings, and reflects his willingness to jump in impulsively. Recording his working life with a shaky handheld camera, with rough jump cuts and an abrasive interview style, he quizzes people and captures their gossip and chitchat, occasionally turning the camera on himself to diarize his own reactions. The artist’s role is demystified by the seemingly unedited dialogue, opening a raw and disruptive space where the profane, the clichéd and the stereotyped are cheerfully grappled with. Wishing to be an agent of social good, he allows himself to look ignorant, crass and tactless to allow for renegotiation of hierarchies. Van Lieshout’s work keeps us between comfort and unease, and challenges us to make a case for our own politics and aesthetics.
Yet as an exhibition, “I am in heaven” seemed to tread gently. The film’s assault on our taste and assumptions was minimized by its containment in the makeshift structure in the gallery, and the drawings shown in parallel did not play the integrated role they often do in his installations. As van Lieshout takes risks on our behalf, so we, as viewers, are invited to risk more.