New York Photo Review
Volume 4 Issue 39 October 8 to 15, 2013

The Genetic Wars by Barbara Confino

Depression Porn
Richard Kern
Medicated, etc.
John D. Roberts

Photo by Richard Kern . Source: Richard Kern, "Valium / Jasminelle" 2012

It has been almost thirty years since Kern's wild beginnings in Manhattan's East Village. In the company of Lydia Lunch, Nick Zedd, Sonic Youth and Henry Rollins, Kern set out on a quest to offend, exploit, and enlighten the underground film scene. Bathed in blood and bodily fluids, Kerns' subjects seemed desperate to seek out the darkest parts of their nature. With the film “Fingered,” Kern solidified his place in the artworld by being booed off stage at the 1986 Berlin Film Festival, where he was set to screen before John Waters' Hairspray.

In the years that followed, Kern would come to embrace his role as an artworld outcast, exploiting his own sex life by driving it to extremes and then juxtoposing it to ideas of sex presented in modern mainstream cinema of the time. Willing participants would partake in rape fantasies and narrative fictional hardcore snuff films, exploring the realms of sadomasochism, necrophelia and drug abuse. In a movement Nick Zedd would coin “The Cinema of Transgression,” Kern and company created works that were passed around quietly in small circles among NYC's Lower East Side, totally unaware that they would one day come to be celebrated for the way in which they pushed the limits of what a modern audience was willing to endure.

That said, thirty years have changed both the artist and the neighborhood that fostered his creativity. Gone are the bombed out blocks, squatters and punk venues of Regan's Manhattan. Seeming to follow suit, the work displayed in the Feature gallery on Allen St. shows almost no evidence of Kerns' journey to the bottom of this place decades ago. Gone, too, are the images of gratuitous torture pornography and tremendously irresponsible use of needles during Manhattan's AIDS crisis. As the title of the exhibition would imply, viewers are exposed to an artist sedated.

Photo by Richard Kern . Source: Richard Kern, Installation of video trailer for “Medicated," 2013

Keeping things simple with a mere twelve images, paired with a 27 minute documentary titled “Medicated,” the presentation here feels minimal, sanitized. Welcoming onlookers to the space are three stoned women from Kern's book “Contact High,” which is available for purchase inside and whose images were originally intended to be the showcase of this exhibition. According to the owner and director of Feature Inc., Kern himself expressed a greater interest in showing images from his new project.

Inspired perhaps by the self medication of the subjects found in “Contact High,” the video “Medicated,” as well as the images that accompany it, focus on ambiguously aged 'girls next door,' and the numerous medications that anchor their existence. Alongside the filmed interviews are four portraits of women from the film, each one taken in the subject's bathroom, surrounded by the clutter of their daily grooming products and holding in their raised hands the prescriptions they are currently taking - the bottles clearly legible. The matter of fact presentation of these women is surprisingly difficult to pin down. The subjects simultaneously read as prescription drug advertisements, American Apparel Billboards, and mugshots. The positioning of the girls with their hands in the air has the subtle effect of making them look as if they've been caught. They are totally exposed: viewers are able to see clearly even what runs through the blood inside of them. We are reminded by the titling of each piece that the girls are identified by the bottles that they are holding.

Photo by Richard Kern . Source: Richard Kern, "Chaima dbl," 2013

On the opposite wall hang five portraits of a somewhat different nature. Here Kern has taken two images of each subject – one donning a simple white blouse and one topless –laid one over the other to produce the effect of a slightly off center double exposure. The colors here exist only in midtones, with no strong whites or blacks. The effect here would be off putting if it weren't so clearly intentional. Kern's careful hand ensures that this odd tonal manipulation has the effect of blending the two images in a way that makes the two seem to exist in the same space at the same moment. Gazing into the beautiful faces of these women, it becomes hard not to wonder what they carry with them beneath the surface.

One thing that has been maintained in Kern's work over the years is his profound interest in knowing what lies beyond the beautiful facades he captures. Kern is exploring the impossibility of perfection. He begs viewers to question their own less than desireable attributes and forces them to wonder what made them so different from his degenerates to begin with.

Richard Kern
Medicated, etc.

Feature, Inc.
131 Allen St.
Lower Manhattan - East         Map

212 675 7772

Wednesday, September 4 to
Saturday, October 12, 2013
Hours: Wed - Sat 12 to 6; Sun 1 to 6

Making Caribbean Dance by Susanna Sloat