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Big in the art world

Martin Kersels' work in 'Heavyweight Champion' plays with ideas of size, including his own presence.

September 10, 2008|David Ng | Times Staff Writer

There are giants of the art world, and then there are true giants of the art world.

Martin Kersels -- sculptor, videographer and performance artist -- stands 6 feet 6 and weighs more than 350 pounds. To say that he is a big man would be a gargantuan understatement.

Usually, an artist's physical size bears little if any relationship to his work, but that's not true in Kersels' case. His art is often about scale -- his own girth but, more important, the idea of largeness and how that affects a person's movement through space.

In a career retrospective called "Heavyweight Champion," which opens Saturday at the Santa Monica Museum of Art, viewers can take full stock of an artist who looms large wherever he goes.

"I think about my size a lot, moving through the world being tall and overweight," Kersels said during a conversation at the museum Monday. "I sometimes feel like I'm out of sync with the culture. I use that feeling in my work, but I don't want it to be finger-pointing -- like everyone's so mean to me or, you know, fat people have feelings too."

He added: "I put it out there with an open-ended statement, like a question. It just is."

Upbeat and unsentimental, Kersels' artwork draws you in with its playfulness and lack of pretension. The current show, which originated last year at the Tang Museum at Skidmore College in upstate New York, is the artist's first museum retrospective and represents the culmination of more than 20 years of work.

A Southern California native who grew up in Playa del Rey, Kersels started his career in the 1980s as a member of the performance art group Shrimps. He subsequently branched out into sculpture and assemblage, taking inspiration from his instructor and sometime mentor Chris Burden. But Kersels' work has always retained a performance-art subtext.

In perhaps his most recognizable images, the artist shows himself lifting a group of friends and throwing them individually through the air. The photographic series, which suggests a highbrow version of "Jackass," also depicts him hurling himself down a flight of stairs and falling on his face on a city sidewalk.

"I do get bruises and scratches," he explained. "But we try to do it in a smart way. There is some stagecraft involved -- it's all about the physics of movement and, in a way, it's a dance."

Kersels said the worst injury he has sustained was a badly cut arm during the making of his photographic series "Pink Constellation," in which the contents of a room collapse on him.

"When Martin gets hurt, it's not so that we can make fun of him," said Ian Berry, the show's curator. "He's helping us access the awkwardness in our own lives, to release some tension or inhibition."

Movement also plays an important role in two new large-scale pieces that serve as the show's twin centerpieces. "Dionysian Stage" is a giant bird's nest made of willow and interspersed with household detritus -- furniture, dishes, old clothes. The assemblage rests atop a rotating tire that transforms the nest into an elephantine dervish.

At the opposite end of the museum gallery sits "Rickety," a giant wood-and-steel platform featuring artificial foliage and supported entirely by old cabinets. The installation will double as a stage on which Kersels will perform a hybrid lecture-dance-movement piece titled "Heavyweight Lecture Musicale" on Sept. 23.

"A museum is all about historicizing art, and I didn't want this show to be looked at as something static," he said. "I wanted to say that art is a continuing and ongoing thing."

Like his art, Kersels' career is also in a state of perpetual motion. In October, the artist will debut new work in a solo show at the Acme Gallery in Los Angeles. In 2009, he's scheduled to have solo gallery shows in Paris and Turin, Italy. He currently teaches at CalArts.

Elsa Longhauser, director of the Santa Monica Museum of Art, attributes Kersels' international appeal to his mix of humor and physicality.

"His work isn't beautiful in the classic sense but rather in the absurd sense," she said. "Everything about him is outsized. But it's not body art at all -- it's his private anthropology."

Growing up, Kersels was always a big kid, but he didn't reach his current height until he was 19. "My dad was worried that I might have gigantism because I was growing so late," the artist recalled, adding that he's the biggest member of his family.

He said the last year has been personally difficult. Health problems in his family coupled with the fact that he quit smoking have caused his weight to balloon. "I've always been big, but I've never been quite this big," he said.

Currently living in Sierra Madre, Kersels is married to Mary Collins, who often assists him with the creative process. In the electronic sculpture "Sputterer," in which stereo noises provoke ripples in a pot of water, husband and wife collaborated on making the flatulent noises heard over the speakers.

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