Richard Kern: Medicated, Etc
September 4 – October 12, 2013
Photographer and filmmaker, Richard Kern, “shoots naked girls.”
By Tessa Maffucci
Now something of an icon to the devotees of American Apparel and VICE, Kern first built a name for himself in the '80s East Village underground scene by making low-budget, angry shorts as part of the Cinema of Transgression, alongside punk favorites such as Lydia Lunch and Nick Zedd. Kern's films were intended to shock and arouse, tempered with black humor and a distinctly cynical edge. During these early years he also had a brief flirtation with performance art, though he explains away these experiments as a tactic to draw attention to his main work, which by the '90s had become almost exclusively photography.
Kern's most recent series Medicated, Etc is now on view at Feature Inc in the Lower East Side. These photographs accumulated over several years of shooting, without the express purpose, at least initially, of exploring this particular theme. Since turning his focus to photography, this has been the way in which his artistic series have tended to develop. While shooting on editorial or commercial projects, Kern will notice a motif that is appealing to him, such as couples or voyeurism, and then actively create images in that vein. This particular series emerged organically as Kern observed that many of his subjects were medicated, specifically those in the US and Canada. Together with the opening of this show, Kern released his most recent book Contact High, published by PictureBox, which is a playful collection of naked girls smoking weed.
The images in this exhibition, coupled with Kern's new book, present a diverse view into the familiar questions that are raised around medication and self-medication. Images such as Dana Smokes (2010) and Val Stoned (2010) have the hazy warmth of complacency, while Hydroxyzine Pam / Doxepin / Lorazepam / Setraline / Colonazepam (2011), unsurprisingly, has a clinical feel. Kern has placed these portraits alongside photographs from a series that he did with schoolgirls in side-by-side images, one clothed and one nude. For this exhibition, Kern has repurposed these images by overlaying the nude and clothed photographs to create a double exposure, slightly offset, which nods to the experience of a drug-altered state. He has also produced a twenty-seven-minute-long video where a few of his subjects speak on their use of these pharmaceuticals; the video has a documentary bent that is reminiscent of A&E's Intervention, but without the intervention. One girl holds up a battered copy of Jacqueline Susann's Valley of the Dolls, another says she's considered going off her meds, but then shrugs and explains that they make her feel like such a baller, so she probably won't.
Kern himself does not live the rock-and-roll lifestyle that his photos may imply and he opts out of any direct social critique with his images, freely admitting that he doesn't recognize most of these drugs by name. While he was surprised by how many of his models were medicated, he doesn't view his photos as a cautionary tale or moral warning, but rather, like all of his works, as portraits where the focus is on the narrative of the sitter, not anything more.
What is there really to say? The images themselves are beautiful and compelling. Perhaps the subject matter is off-putting, even vaguely annoying, but yet it is hard to look away. The images spark storylines, and touch on issues of crafted identity and manufactured beauty, but also have the intoxicating appeal of the pseudo-real.
Tessa is an artist and writer based in Brooklyn, New York. She earned her BA from the Gallatin School at New York University and has furthered her studies at Columbia University and the International Center for Photography.view all articles from this author