by Jonathan Griffin
Redling Fine Art, Los Angeles
Brown furniture, they call it. It’s the stuff that nobody wants: wooden wardrobes, dining tables and armoires, too bulky for the contemporary home, once family heirlooms but now superseded by disposable Ikea furniture. When an artist needs some wood, the source closest at hand is usually not the lumberyard but the thrift store.
Martin Kersels’s exhibition Seen and Heard, his first with Redling Fine Art and the second in the gallery’s expanded new premises, draws heavily on the inherent pathos of repurposed brown furniture. Three freestanding kinetic, sound-emitting sculptures and nearly two-dozen wall-mounted collages slats of mismatched wood, in various states of disrepair.
This is by no means the first time that Kersels has worked with sound. As long ago as 1994, Kersels made a work titled Brown Sound Kit, obliquely recalled in Seen and Heard, which consisted of an apparatus emitting an ultralow frequency designed to prompt the listener to lose control of his or her bowels.
The most straightforward sculpture here (not straightforward, at all, in fact) is Fire Box (all works 2015). Floating on an armature a couple of inches above the seat of an old chair, a wooden jewellery box has a cup wedged into one side. With a wink to Robert Morris’s Box With the Sound of its own Making (1961), the cup broadcasts the crackle of burning tinder when a metal handle is wound beneath the chair. As with the two other sculptures in the room (and unlike the Morris piece) the noise is mechanical rather than recorded; in Fire Box and in the nearby Droner, a spring-wound Victrola motor activates inner workings and amplifies them through the chambers of the object itself.
Though not the most spectacular, Fire Box has the edge on the other two because of its neat synchronicity between form and content. Droner, in which a dramatic ziggurat of drawers lurches faux-perilously into space while a handle turns to produce a soft cello-string hum, does not have the same tautness of rhyme and reason. Snorer, which issues a wheeze then a croaky honk when the viewer pumps the wooden handle, is charming because of the way the sound anthropomorphizes the box from which it emanates.
Much of this exhibition is concerned with the disconcerting results of lifeless objects appearing to assume the qualities of the living, and vice versa. This categorical confusion is the basis of slapstick physical comedy; Kersels based much of his early work around the idea. Three sequential photographs from 1995 titled Tripping 1 (A), (B) and (C) show him launching his own large frame toward the sidewalk, while a passer-by looks on in horror.
Recent works, though subtler, rely on related effects. Kersels has fixed thin strips of wood over vintage LP record sleeves, obscuring the recording artists pictured thereon save for googly round eye-holes. The results are often hilarious, reworking the old pie-in-the-face gag. We laugh especially hard (don’t we always?) when we recognize the faces getting pied; in The Beatles: A Hard Days Night (2015), four pairs of holes gaze balefully through the wall of their wooden prison.
Another series does a similar thing with old black and white photo portraits, and thin skins of cracked veneer. These are somehow less funny, and more poignant. Unlike the preening pop stars, the anonymous sitters appear to have done nothing to deserve their ignominious fate. Kersel’s point, a fair one, is that such indignity comes to us all in time. At its best his art is universal, applicable not just to the artist or to famous faces but to all humanity.
First published: Art Review, Jan-Feb 2016