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Blame It on Magritte

You might assume that the Photoshop fantasias of our age would make the visual conundrums of René Magritte’s pre-war paintings feel quaint. Certainly the beguiling originality of his fractured figures and enigmatic objects has been obscured over the decades by the bowdlerized surrealism of Madison Avenue and pop culture. Yet Magritte’s conflation of the everyday with the otherworldly continues to resonate, a transformative aesthetic that destabilized the foundations of reality as determinedly as Einstein in physics and Heidegger in philosophy.

MOMA’s exhibit focuses on the years 1926 to 1938, when Magritte worked as a commercial artist to supplement the uneven sales of his Surrealist paintings, an unsettling—and at times shocking—body of work that would influence generations of artists on both sides of the high/low divide. While in his early 20s, Magritte (1898–1967) explored Cubism, Futurism, and other modernisms, and eventually developed a style of figuration that presaged Andy Warhol’s formal insights by including advertising graphics and typography.

Affecting the same bourgeois dress and provincial manner he assigned to the bowler-crowned businessmen who populate his paintings, Magritte lived and worked mostly in the suburbs of Brussels, save for a few years spent in Paris seeking an official blessing from the pope of Surrealism, André Breton. Magritte’s painting of a pipe accompanied by the text “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (“This is not a pipe”) impressed Breton and other luminaries of the group, including Salvador Dalí and the poet Paul Éluard. The journey to this iconic 1929 canvas, titled The Treachery of Images, had begun a few years earlier, when Magritte experienced an epiphany in an “unpretentious” Brussels brasserie: “I was in a frame of mind such that the moldings on a door seemed to me to be imbued with a mysterious quality of existence and for a long time I stayed in contact with their reality.”

In the 1926 collage The Lost Jockey, antler-like limbs grow out of decorative wooden posts festooned with sheet music. A horseman gallops through this domestic forest, the entire scene viewed through parted curtains, the shifts in scale and texture creating a mesmerizing dreamscape. Like a physicist ramming particles into each other, Magritte choreographed collisions of homey objects—a large egg crammed into a small birdcage—and the resulting tableaux set off elusive detonations in the brain.

The Light of Coincidences (1933) depicts a candle on a table, which illuminates an easel holding a framed painting of a statue reminiscent of the Venus de Milo. This deathly white human form casts a shadow corresponding to the candle in the foreground; in other words, a light source outside of its frame of existence. We are looking at a two-dimensional rendering of a two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional object placed within a realistically painted scene of a darkened room—multiple fictions begetting illusions. The mind parries the impossibility of a flat, painted canvas casting such volumetric shadows, which causes a conceptual tango to arise between the viewer’s own body and those classically idealized breasts, belly, and mons.

Magritte’s perturbing riddles hide in plain sight of his serviceable trompe l’oeil style—the imagery seduces the eye even as it batters the brain. The staid Belgian’s febrile concepts laid the groundwork for all manner of intellectually driven artwork of the past century: “This is not a pipe” can be seen as the template for much of Jasper Johns’s encaustic japery, as in using blue paint to slather the word “RED” on canvas. Freud proposed that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar; Magritte emphatically countered that neither a depiction nor a verbal description of a pipe, however precise, is truly a pipe. In 1927, he painted an image of deeply recessed shelves upon which lay a severed hand, bruised fruit, and a biomorphic blob; a fourth opening is obscured by a pink, perforated screen. Titled One-Night Museum, this painting anticipated by almost a decade Duchamp’s “Box in a Valise,” a leather case containing reproductions of that conceptual artist’s most famous works. And as compellingly weird as Neo Rauch’s most recent paintings have been, they’ve got nothing on the sheer WTF bravado of Magritte’s The Secret Player (1927), in which a huge sea turtle (headless, no less) levitates above a pair of ball players and a gagged woman in a closet. All of this is acted out in a formal garden of the artist’s trademark wooden balusters.

Even now, in our porn-on-demand age, Magritte’s 80-year-old canvas The Rape delivers a jolt. He replaced a woman’s face with her torso, a brilliantly disturbing move that substitutes nipples for eyes, navel for nose, vagina for mouth. The painting asks a question those buttoned-down suburbanites Magritte specialized in would rather not hear, much less answer: When a man imagines undressing and having sex with a woman he is speaking to—or just passing on the street—has his mind’s eye committed rape? How does the interplay of the physical and the imaginary in masturbatory fantasies affect the object of desire?

When he was 13, Magritte’s mother committed suicide, and legend has it that he witnessed her exposed body being fished out of a Brussels river, her dress wrapped around her head. If The Rape is pure provocation, an earlier painting, The Lovers (1928), haunts us with its vision of a man and a woman kissing though their heads are swathed in white cloth—veils of propriety muting desire.

Magritte’s imagery has been co-opted for everything from the CBS eye logo to album cover art, from Monty Python animations to James Cameron’s floating Avatar landscapes, but this exhibition forcefully reminds us of its original power. Few artists before or since have so remorselessly exposed the simultaneous disconnection and entanglement of the ravenous meat and imaginative neurons that make up the human body.

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Your Brother. Remember?

It begins as a one-man show, with master of ceremonies Zachary Oberzan seated onstage, doing a deliberately stilted Jean-Claude Van Damme impression, complete with blockhead-mystical gestures. But there is, at the heart of Your Brother. Remember? (which originated as a stage piece), a wealth of filmed material. Two decades ago, Oberzan (who was also behind the recent extreme-DIY First Blood adaptation Flooding With Love for the Kid) shot lo-fi parodies of the 1989 Jean-Claude Van Damme film Kickboxer, and some of the more obviously staged segments from the mondo compilation “documentary” Faces of Death, with his brother, Gator. In 2009, the two set about to re-enact those re-enactments. Your Brother. Remember? represents, in part, a mash-up of the new and old home-video footage, as well as clips from the original source material. Family is a theme of Kickboxer, and Oberzan weaves in the film so that it reflects, with an amusing bluntness, upon the brotherly collaboration it inspired. Additional video musical spoofs relate Gator’s real-life struggles with drug addiction and gradually clarify the return to the Kickboxer/Faces of Death project as an attempt at reconciliation after years of estrangement (third Oberzan sibling Jennie also lends a hand). Gator’s game reprisal of his Muscles From Brussels screen persona is increasingly poignant, as we learn more about the events that occurred between the two Oberzan Kickboxers. At barely more than an hour, Your Brother. Remember? is a formal clusterfuck in the best sense, held together by Oberzan’s irrepressible faith in the redemptive power of the cultural scrap heap of adolescence.

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Francesco Tristano & Bruce Brubaker

Brussels-based pianist Francesco Tristano has performed with the Hamburg Symphony and at Carnegie Hall; he’s also covered Detroit techno pioneer Derrick May’s “Strings of Life” and collaborated with Berliner dub-minimalist Moritz von Oswald of Basic Channel. His album for Carl Craig’s Planet E, Idiosynkrasia, bridges these classical and electronic worlds, configuring the piano as an instrument of the future. Joining Tristano is his former Julliard piano teacher (and a leading interpreter of Glass, Muhly and Cage), Bruce Brubaker. Later, there’s “We Are Your Friends!” with residents Epistaxis, Reachout, and Nathan Vice.

Thu., Feb. 3, 6:30 p.m., 2011

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La promesse

(Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, 1996).
Somewhere in dankest Belgium, a quick-thinking urchin and his harried slob of a father are warehousing illegal immigrants. Just as this infusion has revitalized Euro-cinema’s neo-realist impulse, so the Dardennes use the family’s sordid scam as the catalyst for the boy’s moral awakening. This terrific little movie distills an array of moral problems into one supercharged metaphor for patriotism and the fatherland.

Sun., May 31, 6 p.m.; Tue., June 2, 2:15 & 6:30 p.m.; Mon., June 29, 6:40 p.m., 2009

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Pol Bury at Chelsea Art Museum; Carolee Schneemann’s ‘Painting, What It Became’; Wei Dong at Nicholas Robinson

Stare long enough at one of Pol Bury’s unsettling kinetic sculptures, and you may start to feel like those scientists in The Andromeda Strain searching for signs of microscopic alien life. Suddenly, you’re startled by tiny, possibly imagined, movement. In this small exhibit of the artist’s rarely seen devices, something a little eerie is happening.

Bury, a Belgium-born Parisian who died in 2005, started out in the late 1940s as a painter of Magritte-like surrealism. But after encountering Alexander Calder and the sculptor’s mobiles in 1952, Bury ditched the brush for the electric motor and devoted himself to the art of motion. Apart from a few examples of cinetasions (photographs he altered to suggest the shifting of space), all the work here gives nascent life to small populations of objects. In a piece from 1962, 16 Parallelepipeds, small rough squares of copper struggle to turn and touch each other. In others, spheres shift and shake, filaments slowly wave, and wooden blocks try to communicate something. Occasionally, you can hear the faintest of sounds.

Bury achieved such effects with clever mechanisms of motors, magnets, strings, and springs, but by keeping it all hidden, he created a sense of basic Nature: the will to exist. Rewarding patience, Bury’s marvelous living works, at first a bit creepy, are ultimately endearing.

Carolee Schneemann: ‘Painting, What It Became’

Whatever you think of Carolee Schnee-mann’s art, which has often involved Dionysian displays of herself, you have to admire her enduring exuberance in making it. In this well-selected mini-retrospective of her career, Schneemann does everything—swiping a brush, swinging naked, having sex, or smooching a cat—with a kind of reckless candor.

That all-or-nothing approach began in the late 1950s with her paintings, showcased here. Schneemann seems to have tried out everything she’d seen—de Kooning’s nervous portraits, Rauschenberg’s combines, Cornell’s boxed assemblages. The oil is thick and messy, the strokes lunging. It’s as if Schneemann were hurrying to find an idea that really suited her.

That turned out to be her body, nude and (let’s be honest here) packed with dynamite. What followed was a series of performances and films that combined the energy of action painting with feminist empowerment and the era’s sexual breakout. Included in those shown here are the notorious Meat Joy, an orgy of barely clad men and women writhing among sausage, fish, and plucked chickens; Body Collage, which features the artist nude, coated in glue, and rolling around on toilet paper; and the 30-minute 1965 film Fuses, a silent, dreamy, and explicit sequence of Schneemann making ecstatic love to her boyfriend. Once dismissed as exhibitionist (like many of her works), Fuses now stands as her tour de force. With a nod toward Stan Brakhage, Schneemann painted and scratched the 16mm film, and fragmented its progression. Clouded by color and shadow, the images jump around like a distant memory of youthful vigor. In fact, the entire show is a little like that, and it’s a delight. P.P.O.W, 511 W 25th St, 212-647-1044. Through March 28.

Wei Dong

If you hired Botticelli, Lucian Freud, and a fashion photographer to produce portraits of mermaids, you might end up with something like the recent paintings of Wei Dong. Master of the chiaroscuro, Wei expertly imprints the rich Renaissance style onto modern themes. In the past, he’s often mixed in references to Mao’s cultural revolution and socialist realism—a Hoboken resident, Wei grew up in Inner Mongolia—but here, except for couple of army tunics, he has jettisoned his political past for grotesque twists on classical romance. Smiling Asian women in glamour poses (Wei freely borrows from fashion mags) bear scaly fish tails, sometimes in states of decay or dismemberment. In Interior View, a cat seems to have devoured the entrails spilling out from a woman’s gutted lower half. Another mermaid tries to free her tail from cement. In the most striking work, a saint-like figure with finned, fused-together legs (rendered with Freud’s lumpiness) rises from a still life while a horrified Chinese man seems to ask, “What in hell is going on here?” Wei offers few clues, but leaves you wanting more. Nicholas Robinson Gallery, 535 W 20th St, 212-560-9075. Through April 4.

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Pol Bury at Chelsea Art Museum

Stare long enough at one of Pol Bury’s unsettling kinetic sculptures, and you may start to feel like those scientists in The Andromeda Strain searching for signs of microscopic alien life. Suddenly, you’re startled by tiny, possibly imagined, movement. In this small exhibit of the artist’s rarely seen devices, something a little eerie is happening.

Bury, a Belgium-born Parisian who died in 2005, started out in the late 1940s as a painter of Magritte-like surrealism. But after encountering Alexander Calder and the sculptor’s mobiles in 1952, Bury ditched the brush for the electric motor and devoted himself to the art of motion. Apart from a few examples of cinetasions (photographs he altered to suggest the shifting of space), all the work here gives nascent life to small populations of objects. In a piece from 1962, 16 Parallelepipeds, small rough squares of copper struggle to turn and touch each other. In others, spheres shift and shake, filaments slowly wave, and wooden blocks try to communicate something. Occasionally, you can hear the faintest of sounds.

Bury achieved such effects with clever mechanisms of motors, magnets, strings, and springs, but by keeping it all hidden, he created a sense of basic Nature: the will to exist. Rewarding patience, Bury’s marvelous living works, at first a bit creepy, are ultimately endearing.

Tuesdays-Saturdays, 11 a.m. Starts: March 11. Continues through April 4, 2009

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The Self-Reflexive Mockery of JCVD

Shown in the market last May at Cannes, Jean-Claude Van Damme’s JCVD garnered a surprise critical cult. Audiences, midnight or otherwise, may never warm to this low-budget whatzit, but Van Damme’s self-reflexive turn gave movie journalists plenty to mull over. Had Belgium’s contribution to international kick-sock-pow cinema been hanging out with Belgium’s most famous filmmakers, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne? Or pondering the paintings of René Magritte?

JCVD wastes little time working itself into a pretzel. The action begins under the credits with Jean-Claude working his way through a crazy urban battlefield accompanied by a Curtis Mayfield blaxploitation ballad. As funny as anything in Tropic Thunder, this exceedingly long take ends with a falling flat (the aging actor having missed his mark) and a tantrum thrown by the movie’s Chinese director. Van Damme, lest we forget, was partially responsible for bringing John Woo to Hollywood to make Hard Target (1994). Back then, Sight & Sound characterized Van Damme as “an actor of small range, not given to suggesting self-doubt.” It’s precisely those traits that JCVD exploits.

Directed by Mabrouk El Mechri (whose previous feature Virgil concerned an over-the-hill boxer), JCVD holds a funhouse mirror to its star. Jean-Claude is next seen in family court fighting for custody of his daughter as his wife’s attorney enters his DVDs as evidence against him. Suddenly, he’s back in his Belgian hometown, making an inadvertent stir. “He left this shithole for Hollywood!” the people cry. Maybe so, but it’s not long before he finds himself in a Jean-Claude Van Damme situation, held hostage in the local post office. Crowds of fans—eventually including his agitated actual parents—surge outside while the cops, who have set up a command center in the local video store, think that he’s the hostage-taker. The movie, whose default style is a murky, sepia-tinged haze, keeps trying to start over. Thus, Jean-Claude is frequently on the phone begging his agent for better material, until the agent fires him on TV.

JCVD is all about the hassle of being JCVD, but self-parody effectively precludes self-pity. In the most remarkable sequence, this hitherto limited actor launches into a lengthy soliloquy on his reasons for making this movie, explaining why he took up karate and recounting his feelings about celebrity (as well as America, women, and drugs). With its undercurrent of movie music and heartfelt clichés, Van Damme’s confession would hardly seem out of place in a ’60s Godard film. Back in Belgium to start his life over, the star despairs that he’s done nothing worthwhile on this earth and fears he might die in the post office. It’s near risible, but who would dare laugh? Jean-Claude is really crying!

Having visited the far side of the moon, JCVD pulls itself together and reverts to action—after a fashion. The climax is a burst of chaotic, vérité-style confusion in which Jean-Claude kicks his way to freedom. While various characters take turns “acting,” the film jumps anxiously in the projector, and the director himself sings the old Solomon Burke lament “None of Us Are Free.”

Van Damme’s habitual lack of expression enables JCVD‘s wild tonal swings. What exactly is JCVD? Comedy? Confession? Confusion? No one will ever mistake these backstage shenanigans for Irma Vep. But as a self-regarding expression of masculine angst, it’s a Damme sight more fun than Synecdoche.

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Films of the Dardenne Brothers

The eastern Belgium industrial town of Seraing (pop. 60,000) is considerably better known for its factories—iron, steel, crystal— than for its filmmakers. And yet there are the brothers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, who have managed to amass one of the most lauded bodies of work in contemporary world cinema (including twice winning the Cannes Film Festival’s coveted Palme d’Or) without ever venturing far from the banks of the Meuse River, which has long been their muse.

If there is one key disappointment to Anthology’s four-film Dardenne retrospective, “Swimming Upstream,” it’s that it pays no attention to the Dardennes’ career before 1996, when La Promesse, commonly misidentified as their debut feature, made a splash in the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes. Even at that time, few critics noted that the Dardennes had already been working steadily in film for more than 20 years, beginning in the early 1970s, when they were commissioned by the Belgian government to make a nonfiction video about working-class housing developments. After that, they formed their own production company, which over the next two decades became the base for some 60 documentary films produced and/or directed by the Dardennes on subjects ranging from the anti-Nazi resistance to the proletariat playwright Jean Louvet.

Those films were little seen outside Belgium until, relatively recently, they began surfacing in a few exhaustive Dardenne retros, but they are undeniably fascinating, both on their own terms and for giving the auteur theory a run for its money. Whereas La Promesse and its successors, marked by their roving handheld camerawork and visceral location shooting, have been duly praised for their documentary verisimilitude, the Dardennes’ actual documentaries make extensive use of dramatic re-enactments, studio-filmed interviews, and other highly artificial devices. Much the same can be said of the Dardennes’ debut narrative feature, Falsch (1987), a touching film about survivor’s guilt faithfully adapted from René Kalisky’s post-Brechtian play. Five years later, a second narrative effort, Je Pense à Vous, found the brothers working with more characteristic subject matter (a factory closure), but was otherwise a conventional melodrama full of pretty, sun-drenched vistas and a treacly musical score.

So La Promesse, with its story of a father and son involved in an illegal human-trafficking operation, was a breakthrough in more ways than one, putting the Dardennes on the international map, but also serving as an artistic turning point. A template for everything the Dardennes have done since, it flies across the screen with spellbinding narrative economy and an unwavering commitment to storytelling through action. The characters in a Dardenne movie are constantly in motion, either on foot or on motorbike; dialogue is employed as sparingly as a precious natural resource; and the brothers have an abiding interest in morality and human suffering.

Rosetta (1999) brought the Dardennes back to Cannes, ultimately winning them their first Palme. There was also a Best Actress prize for the unforgettable Émilie Dequenne, whose eponymous factory worker loses her job and begins a spiral into near-madness, at one point clinging to a sack of flour at a roadside waffle stand as though it were a vital organ. In The Son (2002), the Dardennes hit upon a moral dilemma worthy of Dostoevsky: A carpentry teacher (regular Dardenne collaborator Olivier Gourmet) discovers that a student in another class is responsible for the death of his son, then goes out of his way to take the murderer under his wing. It is a brilliant exercise in style, with the camera rarely more than a few inches from Gourmet’s face. In 2005, The Child proved to be a typically blistering study of greed and its ramifications, in which an aimless street hustler named Bruno (Jérémie Renier, who made his screen debut as the son in La Promesse) sells his newborn son on the black market, only to suffer a belated crisis of conscience and attempt to reverse that devil’s bargain.

When it too won the Palme d’Or, The Child put the Dardennes in an elite company of double winners that includes Francis Ford Coppola and Shohei Imamura. And once again it’s set in Seraing, which by now has come to seem as essential for the Dardennes as Dublin was for Joyce—a vast crucible of human experience waiting, quite literally, in their own backyard.

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In Trapèze, a Choreographer Helps Bring Forgotten Music to Life

One four-year-old is on her hands and knees, as close as she can get to the edge of the platform separating spectators from the five sweating dancers in the center of the draped and mirrored Spiegeltent that Bard Summerscape has imported from Belgium for the third summer in a row. Another little girl sits on her mother’s lap, eyes very wide, as the evil sorcerer and the troupe of tumblers he has turned into animals struggle for the magic wand that will either release them or keep them captive.

That was definitely the high point of Trapèze (or the Misadventure of the Sorceror’s Menagerie), choreographed by Christopher Williams to a quintet that Sergey Prokofiev, the featured composer for this year’s Summerscape, wrote in 1925. The Berlin-based choreographer Boris Georgevitch Romanov had commissioned it for a production by his Russian Romantic Theatre. Although the music was published (minus two additional sections Romanov had requested late in the game), Trapèze and Romanov’s company fell almost instantly into oblivion. The bright score for piano, oboe, clarinet, violin, viola, and double bass has a circusy twang that fit Romanov’s original theme, and Williams concocted his own scenario to fit what he heard in the music.

In the Spiegeltent, Igor Stravinsky’s 1942 Circus Polka: For a Young Elephant makes a fine overture for what’s to come and sounds entrancingly strange as played by this unusual collection of instruments. A short piece, Musicale: the Bear and the Dove, by Gregory Spears, the ensemble’s pianist, then introduces the characters for Trapèze. The new production, intended to delight both adults and children, has some beguiling effects and ingenious passage of choreography, but it’s dramaturgically confusing, especially since almost all the dancing is on the same level—high-energy and non-stop. The three women seated behind me were shaking their heads as I got up to leave. “Too busy,” they said.

Williams is a gifted choreographer, but Trapèze often gives the impression that he’s vamping to try to fill the music—either by creating a plethora of vigorous dancing or by having the performers do very little (like rolling sadly around) for what seems like a long time. The piece starts off delightfully. The tumblers rush into a circle and call out an image in French: “le mur,” say, or “l’étoile” (the musicians hold up cards with the translation). Then we’re shown whatever the structure is—a temple, a heart, a hula hoop, etc. The performers somersault, too, and jump around in bright patterns.  But right away, there’s something to puzzle over.  If they’re tumblers, why is Jennifer Lafferty billed as “The girl on the flying trapeze” and Williams as “The boy on the flying trapeze,” with Stuart Singer as a strongman and Tara Lorentzen and Kai Kleinbard as fire-eaters? None of them does anything to indicate these different occupations, although when the sorcerer (Aaron Mattocks) changes them into animals that he needs for a touring menagerie, their supposed transformations reflect those jobs we never see. The strongman becomes a bear, the fire-eaters turn into salamanders, and the girl on the trapeze becomes a dove (her partner escapes).

For a few moments, Williams has them attempt one of their old circles, but it’s impossible in their new guise (a touching idea I couldn’t help wishing he’d explored). The subtly metamorphosing costumes (by Williams and Carol Binion) are charming; I especially like the long, green, fabric toes the salamanders acquire. However the dancers don’t perform for the sorcerer’s audience (us, that is) in a way that reflects their new status as animals. They hop and skip and kick their legs as usual, smiling like the troupers that they are. We see only that they are basically unhappy and overworked, and that their evil master makes the dove dance when she’d rather not. The bear gets to be bearish to some clever music with a growly bass (Andante Energico), but it’s difficult to tell that the sorcerer is disciplining him, as the program says, because what the two performers do looks more like a vigorous combative duet.

In the end, Williams reappears to save his friends, sneaking up on the tossing-and-turning sorcerer, while the others stare (not, for some reason, at the sleeping villain but at the spectators). The climactic struggle ensues, but after the dove clobbers the villain and he in return makes her a permanent dove, she’s pulled up on the trapeze (its first appearance), while the others—human again—dance around her doing the now-familiar steps. They leave Williams alone with his former partner, jumping and jumping to reach her as she gradually slumps into death.

There could be an allegory about identity lurking here, but I don’t think so. In this curious fairy tale, some deserving characters get rescued, and the bravest of them all doesn’t.

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Burping up market-driven fare on East 7th

You’ve got to troop down a dark stairway to reach Jimmy’s No. 43, catching glimpses of codgers holding up the barstools in the sports bar upstairs. Once in the gloomy substratum, you’ll face a labyrinthine layout, each successive room heralded by a pass-through with a pointy gothic arch. In one room you find a cramped bar, while in another fake kegs accumulated up near the ceiling look down on small tables. In still another, an oblong communal counter with bar stools peers into a commissary-style kitchen, where the cooking is mainly done on hot plates. Walls and furnishing are clad in dark, beer-sotted wood. A low passageway leads to an adjacent basement—also part of the premises. One expects a procession of Belgian monks to parade through on their way to a Satanic mass.

The décor is undoubtedly owing to its location next to Burp Castle, a monastery-themed beer bar whose empire has shrunk. I’ve heard that the waiters complained about the itchy brown robes they’re required to wear. Reveling in its cryptic name, Jimmy’s No. 43 can’t decide whether it wants to be like Burp or a market-driven bistro. In these confusing culinary times, there’s apparently no conflict in doing both. Reflecting the old world and the new, the beer list is a remarkably compact document. Predictably, the beers lean toward the dark side: Who would bother with wine when you can get a Goliath Triple Ale from Belgium ($9 per goblet), or Blue Point’s Oktoberfest Ale from Long Island? Since Jimmy’s partly espouses locavore thinking, you’d better select an imperial pint of Bengali Tiger I.P.A. from Six Points Brewery ($7), located just across the river in Red Hook.

The menu is torn between market-driven fare and gussied-up bar food, like a culinary Jekyll and Hyde. The bar food, obviously, is the Mr. Hyde: It includes a shepherd’s pie ($10) that substitutes stone-ground grits for mashed potatoes, and the mince underneath spoons up rich and slightly tomatoey, like a Bolognese ragout. A pickle plate ($5) has been reformed by the farmers’ market into a tour-de-force of watermelon rinds, green beans, red beets, cherries, and plain old cucumber pickles, thrown helter-skelter onto a small plate. It makes a fine shared appetizer, but the beets taste disturbingly of clove. There’s a grilled sausage snack, too—though the sausage is a locally smoked Polish kielbasa of small circumference that would do Per Se proud. Meanwhile, the usual plebian snack of salted peanuts has been upstaged by toasted walnuts ($3) spritzed with local honey and fennel pollen. One expects to be attacked by bees while downing this crunchy and profuse treat.

Ultimately, the Dr. Jekyll side is more interesting, scrawled almost illegibly on a chalkboard that the distracted servers push from room to room. One evening we enjoyed a salad of mozzarella and heirloom tomatoes ($9). “This is the last week heirlooms will be available in the farmers’ market,” intoned our waiter, stretching the truth a bit. But the salad was no predictable Caprese, and there were no tomatoes lined up like a chancel choir gathering around them their surplices of damp mozzarella. Rather, the yellow and green and purplish-red love apples (as they were once known in Europe) were cut in wedges and tossed with diced mozzarella and shreds of purple onion, making the tomatoes the center of attention. Not a leaf of basil anywhere—instead, a black-pepper vinaigrette set the tomatoes on fire, bringing their sweetness to the fore.

Those basil leaves turned up in a cream-less corn soup ($8) that glimmered with orange chili oil and concealed a handful of minced herbs. Less successful was the candy-cane beet risotto ($11): Though prettily decorated with beet greens, the cubes of arresting striped beets were so small as to be invisible. Still, the al dente risotto was cheesy and tasty, and Jimmy’s prices are downright cheap by East Village standards. The menu offers a couple of fish filets like daurade, Pacific salmon, and branzino, catering to fishetarians who have not read End of the Line, a book that preaches the imminent demise of wild oceanic species.

Rather, go for the smoked pork loin ($16). I expected the restaurant to cop out and sling a smoked chop from the Polish butcher around the corner. But the loin, plopped on a bed of mashed potatoes, was well-fatted and home-smoked. And let me tell you, bar food doesn’t get any better than that.