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Through December 13, 2008, at The Santa Monica Museum of Art, Santa Monica

by Diane Calder

There’s something pathetically comedic about Martin Kersels’ de-stabilized works of art. Gravity and humor on a grand scale activate “Heavyweight Champion,” the largest exhibition of the artist’s production to date, a collection of over 30 works featuring sculpture, photography and video documentation of performances by Kersels.

The multimedia artist makes no attempt to conceal the electric motor that causes his mesmerizing mechanized sculpture of a blinking lifebuoy, “Buoy,” to rock back and forth like a metronome. Making a point of using mundane materials, Kersels exposes all the working parts of his sculptures to public view, pulling the curtain back to reveal the ordinariness behind his wizardry. His own voice is detectable on the CD connected to the nearly six foot tall buoy marooned on the gallery floor. He generates increasingly loud whooshing sounds that build into a ridiculous imitation of a storm capable of tossing ocean waves. The sculpture’s bulbous bottom simulates that of a child’s roly-poly toy or clown shaped punching bag, weighted inside to enable it to remain upright no matter how hard it is hit: the thing is built to teeter on the edge, but dancing in perpetuity, refusing to stay down.

Blogger and recent Cal Arts grad Michael Buitron recognizes the incredible approachability of Kersels’ work, suggesting that “there is a strong relationship with the body, either in the anthropomorphized forms or how the body relates to the sculptures that conceivably may be operated.” That relationship is supported by Kersels’ early collaboration with other heavyweights in the performance group called the Shrimps, which Kersels acknowledges set the stage for his later work in sculpture. That’s where he began creating the most of his 300 plus pounds of flesh, moving that mass through space, performing what he characterizes as sculpture-making in time.

Among the earliest works in the show are photographs of Kersels falling, taken in the mid 1990’s while he was working on his MFA degree at UCLA with faculty mentors like Charles Ray, Chris Burden, Paul McCarthy and Mike Kelly. Those pictures and others in which Kersels trips, tosses friends into the air or gets smacked by them, are the result of hours of practice in collaboration and improvisation with the photographer (usually Kersels’ wife, Mary Collins). Their goal was to allow the camera to capture points of view and trajectories that responded to the artist’s quest for melancholic, pathetic actions. Credit Kersels’ astute study of the “wink-wink humor mixed with a tragic element” of his Hollywood hero, Buster Keaton. The obvious art world precedent for this series is Yves Klein’s 1960 “Leap into the Void,” retouched before Photoshop further eroded our belief in “truth” in photography. The oddity in the series is the diptych “Kouros and Me,” understandable as a study in contrasts between the formal posture of the Greek sculpture’s idealized body and the bulges under Kersels’ tee shirt, but a rare exception to Kersels’ “what you see is what you get” work ethic. His flying kouros is a painted foam impersonation, linking it to later accusations of fakery and illegal procurements that plagued the Getty’s Department of Antiquities.

"Wishing Well," 2003, 55 gallon drum barrel,
wood, rope, pulley, plaster, paint, convex
mirror, light, power cord, 84 x 45 x 23 1/2".

Buoy," aluminum, steel, motor,
light, amplifier, speaker, wood, weights, cd
player, audio cd, 69 1/2 x 20 1/4 x 20 1/4".

"Dionysian Stage," 2004-5, willow,
aluminum, steel, tractor wheel, motor, found
household objects, 115 x 156 x 153".
Photo: Bruce Morr.

"Kouros and Me (3)," 2000, Cibachrome,
one of two in diptych, 47 3/8 x 71 3/8".

"Falling 4," 1995, black and
white photograph, one of a
triptych, 23 3/8 x 35 3/8".

The massive, nest-like “Dionysian Stage,” fabricated in collaboration with a skilled basket maker, entangles a raft of household objects in willow branches, elevating and rotating them atop a tractor tire. Kersels’ interest in the added value accrued to common objects when they attain the status of art is overtaken by implications of disaster woven into the nest.  As a native Californian, Kersels has experienced plenty of calamities of the type prophesized by author Mike Davis’ “Ecology of Fear.” In dangerous times, sales of Bibles and publications embracing doom soar. “Wishing Well,” built on a black fifty gallon drum barrel, recognizes a longing for salvation by a higher force. At the same time, it shines a light back into the face of the viewer who peers into its mirrored depths, echoing Davis’ campaign to expose those who ignore ecology’s dictates.

While the rickety ladder suggesting imminent collapse in “Jerry” actually references the demise of Kersels’ relationship with a buddy, the work could easily be interpreted as a warning to those who continue to remodel and flip houses in this now collapsed real estate market.

Fate has a habit of attaching added layers of meaning to works of art. Kersels’ fellow Cal Arts faculty member, Charles Gaines was lauded as a prophet by those who claimed his 1997 “Airplanecrash Clock” predicted 9/11. Headline phrases such as “In freefall,” or “Too big to fail,” coincidently describe both the current economic debacle and Kersels’ work. The artist’s poignant investigation of gravity in “Pink Constellation,” a video depicting teenage fantasy life and Kersels at risk in a tumbling domestic stage set, underlines the tragic/comedic consequences of stress and strain that permeate the intense work of this larger-than-life object maker and performance artist.