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Richard Kern

The shallow waters that run between the worlds of Pornography and Art can be unwelcoming for the artists that decide to dip their toes. But with any grey area, there will always be those insane few who revel in the fog and carve out holes in which they comfortably sit and stew their creative juices. Richard Kern is one of those few.
It was a pissing miserable day from the moment I opened my eyes. The window had been left ajar so that the ridiculously expensive IKEA blind was soaked through and the room had acquired a wet dog smell. Hoorah for rainy mornings, and Hooray for rainy Sunday mornings at that. The night previous, my part-time live-in lover and I had been debating the slim and attractive line between fashion and pornography owed partly to Holly Valance, and partly to the abundance of Spearmint Rhino posters in east London.

So it was a spooky parallel that later that wet-dog Sunday, we had to attend a meeting at the ICA, where it just so happened that art/porn photographer, Richard Kern was exhibiting.

Kern first began to have his name batted around in the early-mid eighties. In 1983, he purchased a Super-8 movie camera and began to document people he knew, acting out “statements” mostly about their lives. They were the kind of films kids whisper about in the back of the class they flunked three years in a row, and were mostly remembered for their graphic nature and bloodshed – fight stories, sex stories and drug parties.

Kerns films became a word of mouth phenomena – every cool kid wanted to cop a piece of the action, but the mounting controversy meant that the films couldn’t be shown anywhere legit… They were low/no budget home mades. They made for difficult or ‘inappropriate’ viewing, they weren’t holiday snaps or cleverly edited – The films were raw, concentrating on private issues not usually addressed in public broadcast.

This didn’t deter Kern who decided to go out to the clubs around New York and show the films he’d made before the gigs that many of his friends bands played. His friends just happened to be in the kind of bands that the cool kids wanted to see, (people like Nick Zedd, Lydia Lunch, Lung Leg, Cassandra Stark, Sonic Youth, Tommy Turner, David Wojnarowitcz, Karen Finley, Audrey Rose and Clint Ruin) and so a happy medium was reached… if you could call it happy. These people starred in his films, as well as allowing them to be shown at their shows. Collectively, the works and artists became known as the “Cinema of Transgression”.

“The characters in my films shot up drugs, pierced or cut themselves, beat each other up, sucked each other off, killed their parents, raped youngsters, etc. over harsh soundtracks produced by my friend Jim Thirlwell. The most popular of these films, FINGERED, was also the most controversial. At screening after screening, both in the States and abroad, I was routinely booed off the stage, attacked or shut down. Yet, the first time Lydia (the star and instigator of this movie) and I sat down to watch the finished product, she looked at me and said “This isn’t hard enough”. To me, making these films was like taking a big, fat, smelly dump then standing back and watching people react”

At this point in the story, Kern went through some kind of breakdown. He moved to San Francisco, hooked up with criminals and heroin addicts and sold his sole to the devil – well – not quite, but he did sell off all of his possessions, living on spare change in a spare room. It was a fairly black period for him, and not a lot happened with his work, the films stopped, the photography dwindled and slept for a while… though he did manage to keep hold of his cameras. Then as in every good story, something snapped alive inside him. He woke up one morning, packed up shop and moved back to New York.

Once back in the big apple, Kern turned his hand back to photography (something he had picked up as a child) and to a subject that had fascinated him ever since he ditched school one day and hitched a ride with a van full of glamour girls.

Porn. Nudity. Voyeurism.

Since that breakdown, Kern has dabbled in everything from hardcore porn shoots to music videos for Marilyn Manson. He’s done the odd fashion shoot too, but ‘odd’ is the word we have to underline in that statement… some call him the king of kooky, others don’t. But either way there is something undeniably fascinating in his work.
The exhibition at t he ICA borrowed photo’s from “New York Girls”, a series that Kern has been working as an ongoing project over the past 15 years since his breakdown.

“The models are New York girls by my definition. At some point, they have all lived in Manhattan, drawn by that yearning for excitement and lifestyle intensity that motivates everyone that moves there. I don’t think that there are any Manhattan natives. Some of the women came from nearby Long Island and some arrived from as far away as Japan but they all became New Yorkers by spending time in the downtown scene looking for fun.”

The exhibition itself was part of the Artist <-> Model season at the ICA, arranged to reflect the kind of creative outcomes that flow between the artist and model, and partly to question what makes art “unacceptable”. Considering this was something T and I had been talking about just the night before, it seemed only right to poke our heads around the gallery.

The pictures that were on display are disturbing works, of that there is no doubt. But they are disturbing because they are so horrifically normal, and a lot of this has to do with the mundane setting, Kern’s home, where all the shots were taken. No plush curtains or bondage, no gilded chairs or jacuzzis. Just very, very, normal. And it’s this sense of normality that makes viewing the photos so very awkward.

One photograph sees a girl, flushed and spread-eagled on a bed. A used condom sticks to itself and to her thigh and glistens with cum, which also appears to be trickling down her leg. She’s in no hurry to remove it, but she’s not revelling in mock ecstacy either. Her lover has abandoned her and ducked behind the camera to take a snap, which she appears perfectly comfortable to be a part of…

It is perfectly staged, as are all of the other photographs. The environments are set out and lit so as not to impose any particular poise on the photographs. They look very much like snapshots of any given person’s kitchen, bathroom, livingroom. But somewhere along the line it all went a bit noodly and a naked lady slipped in there, oblivious to the fact she was being watched, or had no clothes on, and she started painting her nails… or squeezing her spots… You feel privy to a view that most people only experience with their most intimate partners.

There is a naivety, a closed-comfort. A secret beauty mark or freckle. And though none of the young ladies are really… well… average (they are all perhaps a size 10, with pretty faces) they are all relatively ‘normal’ looking. Some have cellulite. Their nipples aren’t uniformly perky and glazed in fresh pink gloss. They are girls (18+), who for the most part, have contacted Kern looking to be photographed however he happens to want to photograph them and they have been photographed in a way that feels comfortable for them.

This is the kind of exhibition I love, because in it’s very nature it is so much more than pictures on a wall. Put any art-loving person in front of a Warhol, and they will stare at it. Stare at its ultimate flatness, at the colour, at the composition. Evoking their own emotions as they examine the true source of the feeling that went into the picture, or indeed that comes out of it. Wondering if maybe its up to the hype it has been seeped in. Thinking that maybe, the colours are a little different to the version they have in their pop-art postcard book at home.

Put someone in front of one of the “New York Girls” and the reaction is quite different. My fellow viewers were doing a lap of the photos before making their exits, and damnit you’d have to CHAIN them there to even take note of the composition.

The work challenges dominant moral codes of acceptable viewing because it sits somewhere in a grey area – not glamorous enough, not seedy enough, not staged enough and staged too much. The photos are taken with consent, for a gallery environment, they are labelled as “art” so they are “acceptable”… But taken without consent, and they would be voyeuristic, invasive and also illegal. It would be considered to be the work of an absolute pervert.

We made our exit heading for somewhere to catch a late lunch in reflective silence. I’m not too sure what T made of it. Maybe he was thinking about that model that looked a little like Holly Valance. Maybe he was thinking about the lady that came into the gallery, snorted loudly and left. I know that I wish I could have been at one of those original shows. I know that I wonder how many people came out of those shows with a sickness in their stomach, with a drive to try something new, to create something. Because I felt like that, reading about Kern, seeing his work and the reactions to it. I felt freaked out by the strange ‘Big Brother’ / ‘ we are watching’ unease I was left with….

And I wonder, with the casual voyeurism of reality TV taking over as the nation’s favourite past-time, how long it will be before the voyeurs become the subjects and reality photoshoots leave Kern’s “New York Girls” looking as propped, posed and false as the porn stars he once ditched school to ride with. Its a fine line between Porn and Art, but in ‘real life’ surely the only marker left for us to judge it with is our ability to ask who is watching who, and why.