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In the end, it's all about him

In looking at others, Erik van Lieshout bares his own soul. The L.A. segment of his video autobiography is at the Hammer.

March 26, 2007|Paul Young | Special to The Times

Like many people, Erik van Lieshout came to Los Angeles to find himself. More precisely, the Dutch artist came at the invitation of the Hammer Museum to create a video installation that would respond to L.A. and further his autobiographical quest.

"My challenge is to lose control," Van Lieshout says. "It actually has to do with fear. Because it is only when you lose control that you have the feeling of freedom."

He's sitting in the living room of the Westwood apartment he shares with Core van der Hoeven, a fellow Dutch filmmaker and the editor of Van Lieshout's videos. With bright blue eyes and a mischievous smile, Van Lieshout looks younger than his 39 years and possesses a combination of childlike diffidence and downright shrewdness. Today he's feeling relaxed. "I'm happy with 'Part 1,' " he says of the completed L.A. work, on display at the Hammer through April 22. "Although yesterday I hated it. I thought it was the worst thing I've ever done."

Van Lieshout (pronounced LEES-hou), a graduate of De Ateliers (formerly Ateliers '63) in Amsterdam and an accomplished painter, gained recognition in 1999 for the video "EMMDM," a campy spin on Beastie Boys-style rock videos. He has since become known for fusing the personal, political and profane in videos as well as drawings and installations. Last year he had a midcareer survey at Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in his hometown of Rotterdam, and there have been solo shows in Tokyo, Paris, London and Berlin.

"He's only at the beginning of his career," says curator Susan Cross, who will present three of his videos, including the second part of what is planned as an American trilogy, at MASS MoCA in North Adams, Mass., beginning April 21. "But he's already on a lot of people's radar screens -- mostly in Europe but also here."

Van Lieshout's videos, typically six to 20 minutes, employ a loose, expressionistic style. He uses no script, although he researches subjects for several weeks before shooting and often throws himself into the mix. "Rotterdam-Rostock" (2006) found him on a bike ride through Germany, where he joined with Hitler supporters and common folk alike; "Lariam" (2001) takes a more comical turn, as he travels to Ghana to learn how to rap. With Van der Hoeven, his editor, he creates elliptical narratives by way of staccato rhythms and clever rhyming patterns that break with conventional documentary forms.

Thematically, the videos tend to explore pop culture and sociopolitical taboos. But as Hammer adjunct curator Ali Subotnick notes, his works may best be seen through the lens of autobiography. "They're very much about him, even when he's looking at other subjects," she says. "But he's so sincere and his motives are so genuine that it really makes you question things like reality TV."

For example, "Up!" explores his relationship with his mother and follows Van Lieshout through a series of psychotherapy sessions, in which one psychiatrist reveals the artist's fear of women, another advises him to "give" with his penis, and still another calls his artwork boring.

"I let myself look bad," Van Lieshout says. "I make myself feel guilty. This is what it is -- it comes from guilt."

By letting himself look bad, he gets others to open up too, Cross says, even when the results are embarrassing. "He's incredibly disarming. When you're with him, you find yourself saying things that you probably shouldn't."

His videos are indeed full of alarming confessions: Germans revealing anti-Semitic views, Dutch businessmen offering candid sexual revelations, drug addicts waxing poetic about heroin. And that doesn't always sit well with his subjects. After he made "Happiness" in 2003, his younger brother Bart refused to talk to him for a year because of the painful confrontations the work includes. "He was very angry," says the artist. "He didn't like it."

In December, the Hammer brought Van Lieshout to L.A. to help initiate its three- to six-month residency program for working artists. "Part of the requirement for the residency is that the artist must do something that responds to the community," says Subotnick, who commissioned a Van Lieshout video for the 2006 Berlin Biennale. "I knew that Erik, with his way of interacting with people, would do something interesting here."

The result, a 19-minute video simply titled "Part 1," finds Van Lieshout visiting famous L.A.-area grave sites, searching for the Playboy Mansion and marveling at Paris Hilton on TV. But mostly the piece -- which took three weeks to shoot and edit -- concentrates on him taking acting lessons and listening to the musings of his instructor. "The acting class was very interesting to me," Van Lieshout says, "because you have to learn how to relax, listen and understand your feelings at every moment. It's very much like therapy, but it's also philosophy and everything else put together."

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