New York

Ed Kerns

Rosa Esman Gallery

Ed Kerns’ new paintings are like ruins of paintings, jury-rigged so as to be presentable. I do not mean this pejoratively. Layers of disused imagery show through the surfaces, layers of fabric which have been gashed in places, and then sewn back together with crude, wide stitches. Pocked, stained, gouged and otherwise damaged, these works recall rooms with crumbling plaster, patinas of paint on archaic machinery, and old frescoes badly restored.

In one sense Kerns’ painting are documents of frustration. Like the work of a number of contemporary abstract painters, these pieces suggest endless difficulty in getting an image down on canvas. They represent a continuous discarding of images (as if to say no visual statement can communicate adequately) and culminate in a surface that is relatively blank, except for countless marks of the artist’s labor. This is at once a move away from the minimal, and a repudiation of dramatic, gestural abstraction. Kerns’ paintings are not resigned or despairing, however, as much as they are angry. They are frameless and chipped at the edges, and they protrude aggressively from the wall despite their sedate beiges, mauves and grays.

The rejected, phantom imagery in Kerns’ works is not usually representational, even though the upper half of Pressure, 1977, faintly indicates what looks like a crude sketch of a house’s facade. Various geometrical forms and crude, random markings are what show through, and sometimes overtly decorate, the topmost layer of each painting. Although these markings are indecipherable, they look like bits of symbolic language. This is partly due to the apparent deliberateness with which they are drawn, and to their stubborn insistence at surviving Kerns’ belabored impasto. The tears in Kerns’ fabric also appear to have been made with calculation, as an incision might be made. Scars that never fully heal, they imply access to the deeper, less visible layers of the pictures.

The hieroglyphic quality of these various markings, and the struggle to communicate that they connote, are a form of modern primitivism. Some obscure contemporary scarification ritual is suggested by Kerns’ gashes, a ritual, perhaps, that the paintings have had to undergo in order to qualify as paintings. Indeed, the composite quality of Kerns’ paintings amounts to an irate gesture at abstract painting that is clean and facile. One can guess at the kinds of painting Kerns rebukes—those elegant and fastidious works in both Minimalist and systematist style, ubiquitous in recent years, that also employ pseudo-language. The anger in Kerns’ works is plausible, largely because they so steadfastly avoid becoming facilely decorative objects themselves. At the same time, they have been so marred and abused that they cannot help but seem somewhat lugubrious.

Leo Rubinfien