New York

Ed Kerns

Rosa Esman Gallery

Ed Kerns’ work over the past few years has been characterized by a brutal, perhaps primitive approach to the canvas. Again, in his latest paintings, he gashes and sutures the canvas plane, at once destroying and reclaiming its surface. That fine line separating pain and penance in Judeo-Christianity has for Kerns always been the esthetic struggle between the additive and the subtractive, the perpetual seesawing between ritualistically inflicting paint and form upon a canvas and absolving it.

In the new work, having already mastered the manipulation of his layered and “darned” surfaces as well as the use of ancient colors—dusty whites, pasty whites, terra cottas resembling old meat and stanched blood—Kerns has introduced a starkness born out of a sharp contrast between black and white. Black, when set down with such intensity and contained in such sharply bounded form as it is here, has a rigidity which refers to a modernist approach which Kerns has imposed upon his own painting style. For the most part, that feeling of ancientness which we’ve come to associate with his work is undermined.

In Hecate, he makes a futile attempt to diffuse the overly top-heavy black area through alternating shiny and dull. The back and forth shift from surface involvement to imposed form is jolting and difficult to accept visually. A more tentative, less opaque interposition of black proves more successful: in the piece entitled Hard Scrabble, an incision made in the black region “bleeds” out a thin, fluid white. An area of black in an untitled one works because of an underlying presence here, a subtle pinkness which resounds in the rest of the paintings.

Whether the slight shift in Kerns’ formal involvements is a challenge or a distraction, the result is that some of the intense agitation and violence usually contained in his work is diminished. A somewhat tentative approach to the new inclusions comes through those canvases whose widths have been painted black. “To deal with the plane’s thickness, or to ignore it” is the right question for the artist to ask, but before proceeding, a decisive statement that the painting is being handled as an object must be made. Kerns’ paintings are clearly not objects. His metier remains where it has always been—on the almost skinlike surfaces of his canvases, built-up, eroded, mended and scarred, relics of time.

Judith Lopes Cardozo