Santa Monica Museum of Art
Martin Kersels: Heavyweight Champion
September 13- December 13, 2008
Martin Kersels has been a force in the Southern California art scene for the last ten years as a multidisciplinary artist and teacher at California Institute of the Arts. He can now add the 2008 Guggenheim Foundation Fellow and SMMOMA career retrospective to his list of accomplishments.
With thirty-three multi-media works on display, Kersels comes across as a man of tremendous charisma and hit-or-miss creative talent. His style has been described as deadpan or slapstick, and indeed many of the pieces on display, such as “Dionysian Stage” (2004-2005), a giant nest of homey domestic debris moving like a disco ball, contain a wry kind of humor. Kersels has often made work out of a synthesis of traditional handicraft placed in an unfamiliar context. This strategy seems less subversive and more like a stylized and technologically based version of Mike Kelley’s work using afghans and stuffed animals (think Sonic Youth album covers).
In Los Angeles, art schools rule the network of power surrounding the gallery system, print publications, and foundation awards. Martin Kersels’ work does nothing to challenge this system, and in fact he seems to reinforce its power through creative associations. Much of the work in “Heavyweight Champion” can be seen as a logical extension of either Mike Kelley's or Paul McCarthy’s philosophical musings. For example, his piece “MacArthur Park” is a simplified machine that plays records; its form is uncomfortably close to that of an iPod docking toy and Paul McCarthy’s tomato head sculptures. “MacArthur Park” appears to have a cartoonish, spherical body and plays feel-good disco hits while its mechanical arms move up and down. Rather than feeling inventive, this work feels derivative and oddly comfortable with its schlocky references to both every day popular culture and super cool art historical antecedents, like Jason Rhodes and Edward Keinholz.
Kersels’ work does diverge from his heroes when approaching the topic of scale and body size. In “Kouros and me“ (2000), he launches a highly idealized Greek Kouros statue into space, symbolically smashing its idealized form. The photo freezes the moment in dramatic tension between creation and destruction. His most stunning piece in the show is a twenty-minute video, “Pink Constellation” (2001), which depicts a child-like feminine bedroom painted pink and with white furniture. The bedroom is turning in space and its occupant, a lovely girl, seamlessly rolls from the ceiling to the floor in a low-tech visual trick that allows her to appear to defy gravity. Cut between the beautiful girl gliding along the walls, floor, and ceiling, Kersels appears dressed in doltish zebra pants and a sweat stained orange shirt. Kersels is thrown haphazardly through the space, bringing the whole set crashing down around him on his head. Kersels questions the need we all feel to fit into average spaces, as though an approximation of the average body is in someway an approximation of an average and ultimately bland mind.
His newest piece “Rickety,” a stage set with trees, is a bit of a disappointment. The set compresses furniture trapped in a netherworld below. A hole cut into the stage is used to allow performers to slide between both worlds. As an object, “Rickety” is vaguely evocative of the feelings of suffocation and scale that Kersels hopes to achieve by activating the relationship between his large body and the world. However, the video “Huh,” which documents a dance using the set, is far more interesting than the set as an object. Sadly, all of the dancers in the video have average-sized, ideal bodies, so the piece itself seems rather more slick than rickety when put together as a whole.
There is no doubt that Martin Kersels has a kind of Buster Keaton-esque charm and ability to combine self-effacement and critical discourse. I have long been a fan of his spinning photographs for their depictions of rare and momentary beauty. This show, however, shows a mid-career artist who has still not found a voice or a style uniquely his own. Still, considering this work only documents twelve years of practice, 1994-2007, it's not surprising that the artist hasn’t worked out his themes entirely. After all, a career retrospective should come long into the artist's career not midway unless it hopes to only achieve half-ass status.
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Mary Anna Pomonis is a writer in LA.