Artist at work. Warning: possible boredom ahead

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Erik van Lieshout, installation view of The Basement, 2014, photograph  courtesy of Andy Stagg

Last month I ventured south of the river to brave the badlands of Peckham to spend two hours at the South London Gallery and in their cafe I was treated with one of the best Welsh Rarebits I have ever eaten. The chef revealed her secret when asked: three teaspoons of mustard powder. It was a pity the exhibition did not reach such heights.

Erik van Lieshout is a Dutch artist fascinated by the trials and tribulations he faces in pursuing his artistic mission. There is an implicit and unwarranted assumption that we will be equally fascinated. The exhibition is titled Three Social Works but although van Lieshout’s social relationships are featured, it has a more self focussed theme than this implies. In Ego (2013) a film about his family relationships, he worries over the risk of being criticised for self-indulgence and attempts to let himself off the hook by discussing this concern with his relatives. Unfortunately his conclusion is “so what.” It was also telling that his own growing fame was referenced more than once!  I dutifully sat through all three films totalling 90 minutes in the hope that some visual originality or wider significance would emerge.

The most successful of the three is the shortest, The Basement (2014) at 18 minutes which follows his redesign and construction of a “hotel” for the colony of cats living in the basement of the St Petersburg Hermitage Museum, tolerated for their rat-catching usefulness. We do see an unusual image, the  stripping away of decades of material that had accumulated since the 1917 revolution but there is only so much wielding of power tools and cat cute behaviour that one can reasonably tolerate. The film is atmospherically screened at the end of  a long tunnel that the gallery have constructed for this work.

Janus (2012), a 50 minute documentary following the fate of a reclusive artist’s collection of vintage collectables and artworks after his death included some heartwarming tributes from his grieving family members and their stunned reaction to van Leishout’s failure to secure its archiving in a museum due to cuts in government sponsorship. This film’s major flaw is the inclusion of many unconnected digressions. This fragmentation may be intentional but the lack of focus undermines the dramatic impact of the central narrative. A filmmaker throwing in comments like “I dislike filming people” may be aspiring to a controversial and thought-provoking trickster role. Unfortunately it can also convey the self-pitying angst of an artist using his art as self-therapy. It amuses me that the SLG’s website exhibition page refers to this blurring of sincerity and ambiguity which begs the question how can we tell the difference. In the era of fake news this confusion has an uncomfortable resonance.

I am not averse to artists seizing the post modern opportunity to explore the problems of constructing the artwork you are viewing but this needs careful handling. David Raymond Conroy’s You (People) Are All The Same reviewed in an earlier post is perhaps the best example of how to do it without descending into an amorphous, value-free, mind-numbing narcissism.

The exhibition continues until June 11th.

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