In the first art review I ever got paid cash for, I wrote that Martin Kersels’ 1993 solo debut at the long-defunct A/B Gallery on Robertson Boulevard delivered “a tragicomic slapstick theatricality worthy of Beckett or Sergio Leone.” It’s a little disconcerting to realize that 15 years later I’m unlikely to improve on that encapsulation, but thanks to “Heavyweight Champion” — a mid-career survey of Kersels’ oeuvre curated by Skidmore College’s Ian Berry and currently on view at the Santa Monica Museum of Art — maybe I can expand upon and bolster the argument behind it.

Or maybe not. None of the actual work from that idiosyncratic extravaganza — one of the strongest first showings I’ve ever seen — is included here. That body of work, created and shown while Kersels was still a UCLA grad student, had a distinctly brownish patina of California assemblage to it, combining that tradition’s thrift-store as-is aesthetic with DIY animatronics in a mixture reminiscent of Tim Hawkinson’s elaborately repurposed scavengings, complete with obsessive narcissistic bodily references.

One piece, Monkey Pod (1993), consists almost entirely of a display of the mechanisms by which it dragged itself across the gallery floor on a wooden tiki tray, monitoring and broadcasting its own progress until it reached the limit of its extension cord, at which point it unplugged itself: truth to materials and a bleakly hilarious portrait of the artist as a doomed and oblivious young automaton. Another used the little-known technology of plasma acoustics to cause a propane flame to act as a loudspeaker playing The Eagles’ Hotel California (on vinyl, at the peak of its obsolescence). Then there was Twist (1993) — still one of my favorite Kersels kinetic sculptures — a prosthetic leg with Michael Jackson footwear that, via the continuously winding and unwinding rope of intertwined rubber bands by which it was suspended, was periodically sent into spasms of ecstatic spinning.

The oldest piece that has actually made it into “Heavyweight Champion” is another favorite, though conspicuously devoid of the disarming nostalgia permeating the assemblage-inflected funhouse attractions of that first show. Not that Microphone Drag (1994) didn’t have its theme-park aspects. Consisting of a one-on-one chauffeured careen around the backroads of Culver City in Kersels’ pickup while listening through headphones to the sound of a dangled mike being dragged, bounced and battered along the pavement, the piece was somewhere between a ridiculously overdetermined new instrument for the creation of improvised Noise music and a monstrously detournéed simulator ride.

One of the next oldest works does catch the tail end of Kersels’ initial Bric-a-brac Period — the minimally robotic MacArthur Park (1996), whose lurching planetary billiard balls and karaoke soundtrack act out an endless bipolar cycle — so you don’t have to. But the first body of work presented in detail here actually takes a step back from the uncanny allegorical puppetry in favor of a cooler and more art historically–precise exploration of physicality. In his photodocumentation of various acts of tripping, falling, smacking, tossing and spinning — probably his best-known work — Kersels lays out an incremental, encyclopedic examination of the paradox of performance art’s cultural afterlife in the form of reproductions in magazines and books.

It is in this once-removed form that an aspiring performance artist comes to know the lineage of their chosen medium. Kersels’ decisive-moment framing of his staged traumas dovetails neatly with Performance’s wryly self-reflexive engagement with its own compromised evidence trail, particularly through his UCLA mentor Paul McCarthy’s 1968 action Leap, a re-creation of Leap into the Void (French trickster Yves Klein’s notorious 1960 purported self-defenestration whose documentation turned out to be a faked photograph) which, at the time of his performance, McCarthy had never even seen.

Added to this house of mirrors, Kersels’ cibachrome pratfalls ought to beg the question of authenticity. In truth, their sense of immediacy and spontaneity is belied by the lengthy photo sessions and elaborate editing involved — Kersels often selecting a couple of shots from scores taken by his wife, Mary Collins. And I have to admit that when I saw his black-and-white Falling photos in 1995 — the ones where you can’t see his feet — I suspected there might be some hidden structural support propping him up. But aside from those deliberate formal ambiguities, Kersels’ work manages to convey a sense of both high theatricality and militant authenticity.

It all comes down to the body. Gifted as he is in this area, Kersels has created work hinging on physical presence and/or absence since his days with XXXL 80s performance troupe Shrimps. What comes across most clearly in “Heavyweight Champion” is the progression from the doomy, goofy isolation of his early sculptural surrogates — works like Monkey Pod, MacArthur Park and the artist’s punching-bag clown as oceanless Buoy (1997–98) — to the more recent social work, like the handmade Foley art instruments for his Orchestra for Idiots (2005), which, if not exactly optimistic, leaves the possibility open for some kind of connection.

Nowhere is this shift spelled out more emphatically than in the most recent work in the exhibit, Rickety (2007), a fully functional stage supported by an accumulation of castoff furniture. Sporting artificial foliage and penetrated by passageways to its cluttered domestic underworld, the theatrical platform offers up the same portions of darkness and light that delineate Kersels’ entire oeuvre but steps back from imposing any sort of narrative. Instead, the maze of cabinetry and the brightly lit performance arena are offered as equally navigable, interdependent realms — still fraught with potential danger but less certain of the outcome.

If the SMMOA show had been combined with Kersels’ 1997 Madison (WI) Art Center survey “Commotion” (which included Twist and Flame Speaker) — plus a few stray works, such as his early Tear Drawings — in a larger venue like oh, say, MOCA or LACMA, the complex ambiguities of the work would have been better served, allowing the artist’s ambivalence toward social interaction, humor and entertainment, and the power and fragility of the human body to unfold in a more deeply persuasive manner.

But ultimately, “Heavyweight Champion” serves to ratify my early assessment of Kersels as operating as much in the tradition of experimental modernist theater and populist genre entertainments as those of contemporary sculpture, photography or performance. The sweet brown stain turns out to have been expendable in the interest of an expanded frame – a big-picture kind of thing. Kersels’ work has moved from successfully contained explosions of pathos to three-dimensional challenges to art’s complicity in the modern world’s potentially fatal social retardation. Letting the others in can ruin your perfect little world … or save it. Physically present or not, Martin Kersels patrols that border.

Martin Kersels: Heavyweight Champion | Santa Monica Museum of Art | Bergamot Station G1 | 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica | through Dec. 13

LA Weekly