Arthur Kern Retrospective at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art

by Arden Cone


Arthur Kern certainly didn’t go pounding at anyone’s door for a museum retrospective. An inward, reclusive sculptor, Kern had spent the past twenty years so far out of the public eye he was rumored to have died. Fortunately he was alive and talent has a way of making itself known. Kern’s sculptures are on view at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art until July 17th, 2016.

 Arthur Kern Retrospective at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, Photo Credit:  www.bestofneworleans.com

Arthur Kern Retrospective at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, Photo Credit: www.bestofneworleans.com

The show, Arthur Kern: the Surreal World of a Reclusive Sculptor is guest curated by John Berendt, the author of the #1 New York Times bestseller “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.” Mr. Berendt was one of the first in recent months to view the work at Kern’s home studio. According to New Orleans and Me, Berendt remarked, “It was an exhilarating moment, walking into Arthur Kern’s place that day and discovering forty years of his sculptures arrayed through the house on shelves and table tops. There were dozens of them, every one uniquely memorable, even haunting—the elegantly surreal horses, the distorted faces peering through lenses and making bizarre eye contact with the viewer.”

Now outside of Kern’s studio and placed in the Ogden, the sculptures command the entire fifth floor of the museum, holding their own and against the sterile white walls and spotlights.

 Arthur Kern,  Heirloom,  Photo Credit: John D'Addario for http://www.theneworleansadvocate.com/

Arthur Kern, Heirloom, Photo Credit: John D'Addario for http://www.theneworleansadvocate.com/

As you walk into the hallway gallery, you see the most direct works on view, several pieces combining a retro-futuristic aesthetic with Kern’s signature polyester resin human parts. These works follow the form of eyes, noses and faces behind glass lenses, cramped inside sterile-looking steampunk contraptions. 

Follow the pieces into the main gallery, and you will find Kern’s only non-human subject: the horse. Some small and others nearly life size, the horses embody surrealist stream of consciousness. You can almost see the small sculptures as sketches, experimentation in form and theme. It is a carnival of disturbing delight.

 Arthur Kern,  Dance on Trigger,  Photo Credit: www.nybooks.com

Arthur Kern, Dance on Trigger, Photo Credit: www.nybooks.com

One work, Dance on Trigger, depicts a Degas-like ballerina halted mid-dance atop a dead horse. A look across the room reveals a large version of the lifeless equine. It is splayed brutally across the ground. Three other large horses stand guard around the room.

In Silent Myth, a horse and rider with a smooth alabaster finish, an angel spreads her wings in a threatening gesture. God help me if she ever takes me. She looks like a cobra about to strike.

 Arthur Kern,  Silent Myth,  Photo Credit: www.bestofneworleans.com 

Arthur Kern, Silent Myth, Photo Credit: www.bestofneworleans.com 

In the last room, you will find nothing more comforting. The human figures that surround draw intrigue but you can never quite get to them. There is a layer of brutality in between you and them. Take Abduction of the Queen, for example. Kern has classically rendered a female nude who appears unconscious or dead. Two stout males carry her to god-knows-where like something they have won. Unnerving as the pieces are, they are beautiful. Is it the quality of Kern’s craftsmanship that keeps the viewer’s eyes? Or must we admit to our subconscious draw towards the brutal?

Whatever the answer, we are arrested by Kern’s surrealist pieces; so we must keep looking.

View the show at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art  in New Orleans until July 17th, 2016. For more information, visit the Ogden’s website here