Whitehot Magazine

Edgar Jerins: Life in Charcoal

Tom in Winter, 60” x 96”, charcoal on paper, 2014

By DANIEL MAIDMAN December 28, 2023

The extraordinary new book Edgar Jerins: Life in Charcoal, presents a collection of the large, haunting charcoal drawings of contemporary artist Edgar Jerins. 

Consider Jerins’s drawing Tom in Winter:

A man, Tom, stands outside smoking a cigarette. He is in the suburbs, in winter, under lowering skies. Snow on the ground is brighter than the clouds above. There are houses across the street, but the paunchy, slumped Tom is composed to stand apart from them, apart from the visible signs of home. He is standing a little ways into an overgrown lawn or field, its tall dead grasses poking up through the snow. Beside him is a path turned slushy. This is a bitter Midwestern winter.

Now look more closely at his face:

Tom in Winter [detail], 60” x 96”, charcoal on paper, 2014

Tom has strong features and looks to have been attractive earlier in life. But now he is middle-aged. He’s filled out and his skin has become hard. His nose is rough and his lined cheeks are coarse. He looks like he’s been drinking too much for too long. His mouth hangs slightly open. He stares into space, weary, lost. The highlights in his eyes, those brilliant points which bring eyes to life in an artwork, come not from above, but from below. That’s not the light of heaven shining down on him. It’s the light from the other place, glowing beneath him.

Tom is not going to be OK. 

In fact, Tom was not OK. Tom was the brother of Edgar Jerins, and like Jerins, he was a talented artist. He had a career as a graphic designer, which his drug and alcohol addictions gradually undermined. He lost his job, and then his home, and after years of injuries, died at the age of 57 from sepsis and a shattered femur. 

That’s the kind of portrait Jerins has drawn here. 

Jerins is the sole survivor of his family, a family of Latvian immigrants who settled in Nebraska after the war. He had three brothers. Tom destroyed himself slowly, while Ron and Alex, both schizophrenic, each committed suicide.

A darkness stains all of Jerins’s work. He depicts dark rooms and dark skies. His people are almost always lit by that infernal glare from below. His large charcoal drawings make room to situate people in their lives. Jerins’s sorrowful, fierce eye sees unlovely people burdened with useless crap that overpopulates their dismal homes.

Look at Francie in her Father’s Bedroom:

Francie in her Father’s Bedroom, 60”x 96”, charcoal on paper, 2006

The paneling, the duck-taped windowpane, the hideous leopard print bedspread, a cluttered desk and a vanity betraying evidence of an absent mother. On the bed sits Francie, an adolescent girl, looking bored. And to the left stands her father, cigarette in hand, leaning on the vanity, with that same inward expression Jerins caught in his portrait of Tom: dazed, horrified, as if he’d just become aware of his situation and were thinking How has it come to this? But one also has the feeling that this revelation comes to him every day, that he never stops being stunned by it, that it will keep on hammering him until one day, like Tom, he too will break.

I find it very difficult to write about Jerins’s work. I have been trying to write this piece for months. My practice is to describe what I see in the work, both at the formal and the narrative level. But these are real people Jerins draws, many of them still alive. How can one write such things about people, people who might wind up reading your bleak words about them? I want to address Jerins’s subjects directly: I recognize your bravery and generosity. You have shown your most vulnerable side to your artist. I am not writing here about you. I am writing about the aspect of yourselves you shared with Jerins in support of his vision. 

That said, consider Christmas Day, Yutan, Nebraska:

Christmas Day, Yutan, Nebraska, 60” x 103”, charcoal on paper, 2006

In a low house in front of the endless fields and sky, a father opens a door into a family room where his two sons are play-shooting each other, presumably with their new Christmas toys. Jerins’s probing, pessimistic gaze catches the younger boy lost in a dull, vicious reverie of aggression:

Christmas Day, Yutan, Nebraska [detail], 60” x 103”, charcoal on paper, 2006

And in the father, Jerins sees that same shock of helplessness we see in his other portraits: a man intelligent enough to see how wrong his life has gone, but not intelligent enough to see a way out – not a good one, anyway.

Christmas Day, Yutan, Nebraska [detail], 60” x 103”, charcoal on paper, 2006

As an artist, Jerins is not too different from the great social realist novelists of the nineteenth century. He builds up portraits of individual lives and places into a panoramic tapestry that tells the story of an entire place and time. 

Jerins is chronicling the slow collapse of the center of the country.  

He situates his aesthetic, if not all of his work, firmly in flyover territory. He explores suburban and rural areas. He depicts the decline of all those social factors that make life in the dark of winter bearable: family, community, church, work. He stares deeply into the psychology of this decline, and all the losses it carries in its train: loss of dignity, loss of hope, loss of intelligence and imagination and love. He depicts the consequences of so pervasive a sense of defeat and despair: property and body alike seen as shabby, cared for poorly – depression, dissociation, substance abuse – madness, overdose, suicide. 

Jerins generalizes the tragic history of his own Latvian-American family to the entire community in which it found a home, that mix of immigrants who reached the freezing center of the country and settled there, forming a distinct culture and people who now, like his own family, are going extinct. In treating the suffering around him so specifically, Jerins enters the universality of art. These people become all peoples in decline. All peoples deserve their own chronicler and bard, especially the ones who may be in their final days. 

The Midwest has found its dark, bitter elegist in Edgar Jerins. Edgar Jerins: Life in Charcoal is a profound collection of art, and an essential document in the history of the United States. WM

Daniel Maidman

Daniel Maidman is best known for his vivid depiction of the figure. Maidman’s drawings and paintings are included in the permanent collections of the Library of Congress, the New Britain Museum of American Art, the Wausau Museum of Contemporary Art, the Long Beach Museum of Art, the Bozeman Art Museum, and the Marietta Cobb Museum of Art. His work is included in numerous private collections, including those of Brooke Shields, China Miéville, and Jerry Saltz. His art and writing on art have been featured in The Huffington Post, Poets/Artists, ARTnewsForbesW, and many others. He has been shown in solo shows in New York City and in group shows across the United States and Europe. In 2021 it will be included in the first digital archive of art stored on the surface of the Moon. His books, Daniel Maidman: Nudes and Theseus: Vincent Desiderio on Art, are available from Griffith Moon Publishing. He works in Brooklyn, New York. 

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