Martin Kersels’ art, no matter the medium — whether it’s video, dance, performance, sculpture, oils or photography — is an extension of his unrestrained exuberance and the division between his work and how he moves in the world, which he describes as being either thunderous or ephemeral, a thin membrane if it exists at all. His exuberance is informed with a broad, far-ranging erudition — Kersels reads as voraciously as any well-read novelist — as well as an un-self-conscious sense of theatrical absurdity. Even Kersels’ massive hugs seem theatrically artful and wildly absurd. And when you’re hugged by Kersels, you feel very small because he is a very big man.
But he is a big man who lives in his body as though it has no limitations, like a modern Fatty Arbuckle, that genius of the lithe fat man’s pratfall. Take, for instance, his involvement with the Shrimps, a performance group of huge men who you would never suspect to be dancers. And yet, there they were in the ’80s and ’90s, performing all about town, exploring movement and resetting expectations of what it is to view dance — and, apparently, annoying the art faculty at UCLA, where Kersels studied as an undergrad. When he went back to UCLA for graduate work, the faculty asked him not to continue his performance work with the Shrimps. Though this highhanded interference ended one avenue of artistic expression, it fostered another; Kersels began making objects — objects informed with, as he said in an interview on the Acme Web site, “a high-level slapstick, on the fallibility of the body.”
Of all of Kersels’ work, however, I am most fond of his “Falling” series of photos, which depict the artist heroically falling. I mean really falling. Imagine Milton’s Lucifer, tripping majestically all the way to Hell.
In dialogue with Skidmore College’s Ian Berry, who curated “Heavyweight Champion,” a retrospective of Kersels’ work that just opened at the Santa Monica Museum of Art, the artist offers that there is an aspect of surrender and shame to his “Falling” photos. Once, to commemorate the Christmas season, Kersels invited me to dress in Middle Eastern finery as one of the Three Kings alongside him and another stout fellow. Surely, there was an aspect of surrender and shame as we walked about the faerie-strewn grounds of the Pasadena Waldorf School, which our children attend, following a camel at a wary distance. Camels, we had been told before starting our procession, could leap 10 feet into the air and kick their legs in every direction, striking so hard that serious injury could occur. I don’t think Kersels intended our stroll to be viewed as performance art, but to be near him is to participate in his aesthetic, art entwined in how we live and what we ignore — even perilous camels.
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Kersels’ “Heavyweight Champion” retrospective is on view at the Santa Monica Museum of Art in Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., through Dec. 13. On Sept. 23, Kersels will appear in “Heavyweight Lecture Musicale” at the museum. And new work by Kersels can be seen at Acme gallery, 6150 Wilshire Blvd., L.A., Oct. 4 through Nov. 8.