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'Commotion' Pulls Viewers Into Artist's Wacky Life

Art Review: Traveling show offers insights into how it feels to be Martin Kersels.

October 21, 1998|WILLIAM WILSON | TIMES ART CRITIC

SANTA BARBARA — Imagine being asked to invent a single title fitting as many works of modern art as possible. One might do worse than "The Way Life Feels to Me." The Santa Barbara Contemporary Arts Forum provides a particularly apt example of how that works in its exhibition "Commotion: Martin Kersels."

The traveling show--the first survey of L.A.-based Kersels--presents about a dozen pieces. Since he's only 38, and his earliest work dates back just six years, he still counts as young talent. Starting as a performance artist, he evolved into a maker of wacky techno-contraptions that often include his image.

"Stingray Medley," as a case in point, involves an ancient but very clean Super 8 projector with long reel arms to accommodate a film loop. The movie, projected on a small attached screen, shows Kersels energetically pedaling a kid's bike to the sound of cliche bullfight music. Dramatic climax is achieved when the bike mounts a short wooden ramp. Kersels topples off. The bike plunges over the precipice, falling about 2 feet.

The most striking thing about this Keystone Cop pratfall is its endearing harmlessness and manifest ineptitude. The projecting mechanism participates by repeatedly blurring the picture at the crucial moment. I had to rewatch the loop several times, adjusting the film feed, to finally see the end. Then, of course, the whole thing just starts over.

Applying our generic title clarifies the work. If this is the way life feels to Kersels, then he sees himself as just an ordinary guy running into the usual pitfalls that screw up our larger aspirations.

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His attempted leap even failed to evoke a reaction, at least from me. The urge to laugh was countered by a mild worry that he might be hurt. That was mitigated by the rational realization that the situation was minimally dangerous. On top of that, I was slightly distracted by my own problems operating the equipment. In other words, the work causes viewers to actually feel some of what Kersels went through.

If that reasonably describes the experience of the show so far, there's a kind of 900-pound-gorilla factor that still needs addressing. Physically, at least, Kersels is far from ordinary. He's 6 feet, 7 inches tall, weighs in at 300 pounds and favors borderline hip-hop-style clothing that makes him look like a giant infant with a beard.

Works offer various insights about how it feels to be Kersels. "King Kong" is a blue ladder topped by a video monitor. It broadcasts a tape of the huge, lovable simian evidently climbing to get a better view of nature until he falls. Kersels falls a lot. To properly view the tape, we have to climb the ladder and participate, hoping not to tumble.

Sometimes, as in "Tossing a Friend," the artist feels very strong. At other moments he does quixotically dumb things, as in "Attempt to Raise the Temperature of a Container of Water by Yelling at It." We begin to conclude that Kersels is a techno-nerd science prodigy who got big without growing up. He then shows at least adolescent passion in his "Flame Speaker," in which a propane torch dances to the beat of the Eagles' "Hotel California."

As we're about to decide the guy's a hopeless romantic, he introduces "Objects of the Dealer w/Soundtracks." A regular metal office desk is furnished with the usual computer, phone, fax machine and other paraphernalia. Everything, however, is wired to myriad little speakers. Any appliance operation causes them to broadcast offbeat music by collaborator Mark Wheaton. So Kersels can get down to business, albeit only as a sensible nonsense poet.

Our generic title "The Way Life Feels to Me" sticks as well to, say, Picasso's "Guernica" as to Kersels' work. The comparison, however, dramatizes a huge sea change in 20th century art.

By painting, Picasso was present in his art only metaphorically. That offered viewers aesthetic distance and Picasso the chance to play archetypal Minotaur and Wizard of Oz.

Kersels, following the lead of people like Chris Burden, removes the aesthetic filter, revealing the Wizard as a smart but quite terrestrial character who likes to boogie with his audience.

Curiously, this Baroque tactic has the effect of making Kersels' art almost ego-free. In the end, you feel you know and like Kersels, but a certain mythical grandeur is gone. It seems the century raised its appetite for sensation while lowering its expectations.

Exhibition curator was Toby Kamps. Wisconsin's Madison Art Center organized the show, which comes with a smartly informative catalog essay by Jerry Saltz.

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* Santa Barbara Contemporary Arts Forum, 653 Paseo Nuevo, Santa Barbara, to Dec. 13, closed Mondays, (805) 966-5373.

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