Martin Kersels: Heavyweight Champion

Main Gallery Sep 13–Dec 13, 2008

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Martin Kersels: Heavyweight Champion
Sep 13–Dec 13, 2008





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Martin Kersels: Heavyweight Champion, 2008, Installation view

“I’m not a photographer. I’m an artist who uses photography when the idea dictates. And I think that’s okay because I’m also a performance artist who makes objects, or I’m an object-maker who does performances. I think these labels are less important than the ability to go in the directions I’d like for each work.”
– Martin Kersels in conversation with Ian Berry, Associate Director, The Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College

From September 13 to December 13, 2008, Santa Monica Museum of Art presents Martin Kersels: Heavyweight Champion, the first retrospective of this influential and pioneering Southern California artist. Spanning the years from 1994 to 2007, the exhibition includes thirty-three multimedia artworks ranging from small sculptures, to large-scale photographs, to monumental installations. Kersels has long been esteemed in Southern California artistic and academic circles, and his work is in many collections worldwide. The advent of Heavyweight Champion marks a timely opportunity for this 2008 Guggenheim Foundation Fellow to enjoy the broader recognition and respect his work and creative achievements so well deserve.

Kersels is a long-time aficionado of Buster Keaton, and on first encounter, his artwork seems to exude a similar deadpan slapstick style, balancing the humorous with the wistfully awkward. On further study, this initial impression gives way to darker layers; the performances and works reveal what Kersels refers to as “wink-wink humor mixed with a tragic element.” Early pieces, including the large-scale photographic series of Kersels falling, tripping, tossing people, and being smacked with assorted objects, find the artist experimenting with the creative possibilities of his 6-foot, 7-inch, 350 lb. frame. But the trajectory of Kersels’ career as illuminated in Heavyweight Champion clearly indicates that he is not a single-issue artist; he is not, in the words of Ian Berry “the body-issue guy.” Particularly in his later work, the artist has gone in more conceptual directions, to explore themes of scale, time, space, sound, and gravity.

Highlights of Heavyweight Champion include the monumental installation Dionysian Stage (2004-2005), a 14-foot-diameter nest that spins like an enormous, natural disco ball, and incorporates all manner of homey, domestic debris in its woven willow branches. The work evolved from Kersels’ interest in utilizing traditional craft in nontraditional ways, and from his study in Sweden and Denmark with master craftspeople. Rickety (2007), the artist’s latest work, is a sculpture that compresses and oppresses furniture and other oversized objects beneath a platform. This lower, slightly topsy-turvy world stands in sharp contrast to the clean openness of the top part of the installation. While some of the other sculptures in the exhibition act as surrogates for Kersels’ physical being, Rickety is about the experience of the trials and tribulations of navigating a large body through the world.

An engaging range of programming accompanies Heavyweight Champion, beginning with a performance by the electrifying jazz/punk/blues band Puttanesca on Friday, September 12, the opening night of the exhibition. The concert will take place atop Rickety. Puttanesca’s charismatic vocalist Weba Garretson was, along with Kersels, a member of the performance troupe SHRIMPS, which played a pivotal role in Kersels’ development as an artist. Subsequent programming includes Heavyweight Lecture Musicale(Tuesday, September 23), Kersels’ discussion of his work utilizing visual materials, songs, music, and dance, followed by a Q&A with the artist; and the dance recital Huh?, choreographed by Melinda Ring specifically for the exhibition, and performed throughout Rickety (Friday and Saturday, November 14 and 15).

Heavyweight Champion is accompanied by a full-color catalog illustrating the scope of the artist’s work. The publication includes an interview with Martin Kersels by Ian Berry, Associate Director at The Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College, where the exhibition debuted.