New York

Martin Kersels

Deitch Projects

THOSE CRASHING, RHYTHMIC thuds you heard on entering Martin Kersels's latest show were the sounds of a little world being turned upside down. Literally. This world was the nascently putrescent, nascently pubescent milieu of a middle-class American miss—a room full of stuffed animals, boy-band posters, pink things of all sorts—methodically spinning around and around on a circular track like a giant automatic dryer, letting gravity slam its ersatz, picket-fenced-in contents down to earth, again and again, until they were ground to smithereens. Welcome to Tumble Room, 2001.

Kersels is a big, heavy dude—he's at least six foot three and probably weighs in at over 300 pounds—but his often amusing works have a light touch. Maybe deceptively so: It's one thing to see the lithe, youngish woman in the video Pink Constellation, 2001, nimbly navigating the predestruction Tumble Room space, dancing on the ceiling like Fred Astaire; quite another to see Kersels himself in drawstring zebra-striped pants in the same video, trying unsuccessfully to dance as confidently. It's funny in the way that, say, Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape or an Itchy and Scratchy cartoon is funny: You may find yourself laughing, but, pace Freud, the laughter that erupts out of you does little to restore your emotional balance. (The cyclical, earthshaking thudding of the Tumble Room hardly allows for that.)

Kersels's massive frame informs all his work even when. as in Tumble Room, it is not actually shown: It's a crucial element in his art, enabling him to play the conflicted role of the schoolyard big kid with authority. He doesn't display himself in the way that female artists from Carolee Schneemann to Cindy Sherman do, nor does he occupy space in the way a macho guy like Vito Acconci does. Rather, he allows his body to be what it is, what in fact all bodies are—an encumbrance, a partly disgusting, partly lovable “thing” that is both him and not-him. (I can't help wondering what would happen to Kersels's art if he lost weight; unlike gender or race as commonly conceived, the supersized body is, potentially at least, something malleable, reducible, an entity but not exactly an identity.) The art produced by this body is accordingly a little tough and a little tender: In his earlier series of photographs, “Tossing a Friend,” 1996, in which he launches much smaller female friends into the air, you can sense, behind the smiles of the participants, the unfulfilled longings of awkward adolescence.

There's a feeling you get when you look to the west: that sinking feeling brought on by tract housing in the desert, suburban strip malls, Disneyland/Hollywood, military/industrial complexes, and mustachioed cops. To this feeling Kersels responds with his peculiar blend of CalArtsy Magic Mountain beer-and-acid reflux. It's not a pretty picture, but it tells a true-ish story—with enough levity to counteract the gravity.

Nico Israel