Los Angeles

Martin Kersels

Dan Bernier

In his recent show, Martin Kersels wrestled with questions about how we navigate the world, addressing complex issues of awkwardness, safety and danger, and fear and discomfort. With a vocabulary taken from Conceptual art, performance art, slapstick, and dance, he exaggerates the embarrassing racket we make bumping and stumbling through life housed in our own too, too solid flesh. The work owes its unique perspective to Kersels’ knowledge that we are both privileged and doomed to lumber through the world as blobs of thinking, breathing meat.

The show’s centerpiece, Loud House (all works 1998), is a thirteen-foot-high corrugated-metal shed topped by a video monitor at the roof’s peak that shows footage of the artist cavorting in clogs and other footwear—twirling, toe tapping, and tumbling. The sound track rumbles and crashes through the gallery from special loudspeakers called bass shakers inside the “house.” While the volume varies somewhat, on most of the tape Kersels’ slightest footfall is synched with what sounds like a restaurant’s worth of pots and pans dumped from a cliff. The sheer noise of Loud House is overwhelming; while I was taking notes another visitor bellowed, “How can you write in here?”

The effect of the piece is both funny and discomfiting. While Kersels’ antics are amusing, one’s ears are ringing, and one also feels a pang of conscience for laughing at him. Since the artist is such an enormous guy (he makes some defensive tackles look like they should be ordering clothes from petite catalogues), there’s more than a little pathos attached to watching him produce loud blasts every time he moves. Oh, poor oaf—a giant whose casual gesture sends the forest animals scurrying for cover! Is it wonderful to have your every move accompanied by such fanfare—does it feel godlike?—or is it a humiliating curse, never to tiptoe, to go unnoticed, to fit in? And because these sounds are coming from the house, there’s an eerie suggestion that Kersels might be in there, crashing around, trying to get out. The metaphors here of power and of how we arc trapped in our bodies quickly take Loud House out of its initial realm of passing entertainment. They give the piece real, uh, heft.

The show also included a series of seven large color photographs entitled “Friend Smacking Me,” in which Kersels appears to get slapped, bopped by a janitor’s broom, whapped with a bat, and so on, by grinning acquaintances. These too elicit both amusement and unease in their combination of cartoonish humor and the potential for physical harm. Rounding out the exhibition were two kinetic, garage-inventor sculptures. A long screw bores in and out of Wormdrive Sound, mimicking the crunching sound of movement on a gravel surface. Stream Heat Wind uses light, water, and air to weather a chunk of wood; microphones attached to the piece are supposed to pick up the sounds of the material in the process of decaying. Despite the high decibels, the exhibit was a pleasure, combining the bumbling and the lyrical with surprising resonance.

Amy Gerstler