LOS ANGELES — Martin Kersels' first solo show ranks among the best debuts of the last few years. Funny and engaging, but also creepy and slightly frightening, its power resides in its enthusiastic embrace of ambiguity.
Walking into A/B Gallery feels like climbing through the backside of a gigantic cuckoo-clock. Weights dangle from pulleys and ropes. Mechanisms jump, jitter, stutter and sway, repeatedly measuring off uneven segments of time. Gears rotate relentlessly, stopping and starting on irregular schedules.
The incessant hum fills the crowded gallery. Once in a while, through the clamorous scraping, clanking and banging of Kersels' awkward installation, a melodic pulse of music makes its way into your ears.
Rather than providing respite from the cacophonous exhibition, the faint music intensifies the intrigue. You find yourself paying attention to slowly unfolding patterns of sound and movement, increasingly unsure of what's central or peripheral to Kersels' intentions.
Several models of artmaking compete for your attention, often stretching its span beyond ordinary limits. "Monkey Pod" and "Speaker Slam" propose that art is either a household appliance with a life of its own, or a Sisyphean task that is as frustrating to witness as it is to undertake.
The notion that art is an invisible essence takes hilarious shape in a piece that uses the vibrations of a flame to do the work of a stereo speaker. In "Twist," a prosthetic leg that spastically dances at the end of a rubber-band rope, the idea that an artist controls his work in the same way that a puppeteer controls his marionette is asserted and undermined.
Kersels' best piece is the least aggressive. "Precious Dancer" is a 23-minute Super-8 movie of the artist dancing by himself to pop, soul and Moroccan music. Projected onto a few inches of the gallery wall, the tiny home movie is surprisingly free of the self-involvement (and self-obsession) that is so much a part of contemporary art. The piece ingeniously side-steps the demand that art be ruthlessly self-conscious--a demand that has driven advanced art for more than a century.
Captivation and joy replace intellectual one-upmanship. As you squat and watch Kersels dance with his eyes closed, you're less concerned with what might be going on in his mind and more caught up in the endearingly sweet movements of his body. The simple fact that he might be taking pleasure in his art is enough to get us to take pleasure in our viewing, which these days is to risk being foolish.
This openness can be traced to the fact that Kersels isn't afraid to make a fool of himself in public. His three-dimensional gizmos that move and make noise are a mature meditation on art's capacity to communicate. Although too early to tell, it's not too late to hope that Kersels' work is part of a larger artistic sea-change--a long overdue shift away from self-assured, narrow-minded message mongering, and toward a riskier, more open-ended approach to the ways meaning actually travels between artists and viewers.
* \o7 A/B Gallery, 120 N. Robertson Blvd., (310) 659-7835, ends today.