Coming across Atelier Van Lieshout is easy in this part of the world. From public installations to office furniture, the Rotterdam-based collective/studio founded in the mid-90s by Joep van Lieshout is ubiquitous. Unpolished and organic aesthetics mark AVL's designs, making their utopian pavilions a little sinister and their commercial tables quite quirky (not to mention expensive).
On the whole, the collective's production is more complex than its bleak yet playful sculptures and environments might suggest. Taking place across two venues (three, if you count the collective’s Hagioscoop pavilion in Museumplein for Amsterdam Art Weekend), the monumental exhibition currently on show at GRIMM presents quite a spectacular deconstruction of AVL's oeuvre, one that delves into both its form and its message. While the cozy gallery on the hip Frans Halsstraat hosts a factory-like environment showcasing the studio's more design-y pieces as well as a few sculptures – most notably the unraveled cow at the entrance – the show at the institutional space on Keisersgracht lays out a more schematic and image-oriented overview on the themes that make the practice famous.
Atelier Van Lieshout, Urban Plan of Slave City, 2008, Ink and acrylic on canvas, 200 x 210 cm (x3); Courtesy of the artist and Grimm Gallery, Amsterdam.
The exploitation of the human being in contemporary society is the common denominator of the two shows, even though the concepts are slightly different. One gallery centers on the human body as part of an industrial production chain; the other breaks down a dystopian Slave City, a classic AVL conceit, in terms of planning and architectural models.
Rhetorically, AVL uses irony as an Orwellian – or, better, Swiftian – tool to expose the paradoxes of today's Western condition, and the rather dark Slave City concept is the perfect excuse to apply them to the studio's architectural imagination. But aside from the many models, the most interesting asset in the Keizersgracht show is a painting series explaining the functionality behind the studio’s designs, thus exemplifying their implicit worldview. On one hand the future society AVL envisions is egalitarian and interested in the arts; on the other, it is based on cognitive and physical prostitution: call centers are built near universities and there are brothels for both females and males.
Atelier van Lieshout, Manufactuur, exhibition view, 2012; Photo by Gert Jan van Rooij / Courtesy Grimm Gallery, Amsterdam.
The inscription of the human body in a depersonalizing chain of production is perhaps even more clear in the Manufactuur show, where slick designs mingle with raw artifacts where human heads and rudimentary industrial appliances meet. The exhibition layout is more architectural than the pristine Slave City, turning the gallery itself into a new environment, a site-specific pavilion decorated by more sculptures and paintings. In pure AVL fashion, the irony behind this vision is in part dissimulated by the functionality of the pieces on show, a staple for the studio.
Overall, whether you are a fan of the Atelier's brand of design-infused art (or art-infused design), the Grimm show is the perfect occasion to taste more than a bite of it. Which is good, because AVL makes a type of art that is all the more effective and makes more sense when you see it in bulk, its holistic themes bolstered by the holism of its combined presentation.
(Image on top: Atelier Van Lieshout, Hagioscoop, 2012, 15 x 10 x 3,5 m, 2012. Foam, fiberglass, sand, Japanese rice paper; Courtesy Grimm Gallery, Amsterdam)