New York

Martin Kersels

Jay Gorney Modern Art

Martin Kersels’ recent series, “Tossing a Friend,” 1996, consists of a group of color photographs that feature the artist hurling people through the air in sunny California landscapes. Much has already been made in the art press of Kersels’ exceedingly massive frame (tall, wide, and overweight), and to some extent these pictures might be understood as meditations on a physical state usually considered abnormal. Like those portly comedians (John Belushi and John Candy, for example) who redeemed their size and weight through burlesque gestures, Kersels may seek to empower himself by throwing back in our faces what has been used to define him. Transforming corporeal excess into a one-man amusement park, his vaudevillian, wonderfully dumb pictures show him taking his subjects for a ride that treads the line between frenzied joy and imminent disaster.

Each picture appears to index the arrested moment of just such an escapade. In Tossing a Friend (Amy), 1996, a woman in a polka-dotted dress is captured midflight, her back to the camera, her hands extended toward the artist’s outstretched arms. This photograph, like the rest of those in the show, suggests that Kersels is levitating bodies, as if in defiance of the force of gravity that his heavy frame happily epitomizes. A group of kinetic sculptures with an elegantly goofy, Dada-meets-science-fair charm seemed to have been forged from a similar desire to tamper with physical laws, yet these zany sound-and-image machines veered dangerously close to the one-liner precipice. Many of the constructions—such as Attempt to Raise the Temperature of a Container of Water by Yelling at It, 1995—might have been intended as wry reflections on the inspired ridiculousness of artmaking in general, but there is little to distinguish them from props in The Nutty Professor or a David Letterman skit. Perhaps that’s the artist’s point: make art that is a form of entertainment and thus mocks its own pretension to being art. Ironically, though it’s just this sort of supposedly irreverent gesture that may well be received as forced and pretentious.

There is, by contrast, a refreshing naturalness to “Tossing.” This series of photographs serves as a symbolic reanimation of an event, yet each also takes on an aesthetic life of its own, much as the photo-documentation of Conceptual and performance-based practices in the ’60s was to do. With these images, Kersels generates the sort of anxiety that occurs when our desire to patch unusual but real scenes back into the network of our lives is thwarted. In these images, everything exists in suspended animation; we are never shown the fate of these momentary flyers, so the narrative thread remains elusive. This is what makes Kersels’ expedition into the realm of the absurd so effective: along with the artist and his friends (and let’s not forget Yves Klein), the lot of us are left dangling in an imaginary void, and that’s not such a bad place to be.

Joshua Decter