Jerry Kearns, ‘Pumped’, 2007, acrylic on canvas, 84″ x 84″, Private Collection
Jerry Kearns’ work examines the use of popular imagery whilst revealing how certain images articulate America’s use of hard and soft power. Kearns has had a long standing relationship with the legendary Exit Art cultural center in New York. Some of his work can be seen in their final ever exhibition Every Exit is an Entrance: Thirty Years of Exit Art (till May 19th 2012). Kearns’ first book, Blue Eyed Devil, a work of autobiographical fiction, will be published to coincide with his forthcoming exhibition at the Modernism gallery in San Francisco next Spring.
The term most often deployed to describe your work is ‘Psychological Pop’. That is to say that you are concerned with the impact of the various types of imagery which we are surrounded by everyday, be it advertising, comic books, newsprint and so on. Your work is not dissimilar to Pop, though it could be said to have a moral dimension. Would you agree?
Yes, I think so. The first generation Pop artists are remembered for elevating the commercial vocabulary used in everyday communication into fine art by making hybrids reflecting commercial art methods. Early Pop is primarily remembered as celebrating its source values. The first generation is said to have ‘Americanized’ art and diverted it from its European influences. The passage of time has revealed more subtle intentions were also at work. I look at the control of information as a formable force in social control and manipulation. I think of the media as a system of symbols, signs, and codes. I accept its ideas and images with a ‘grain of salt’. So, I guess there are morality tales in my work. There are certainly socio-political values expressed. But, I’m far more interested in recording my perception of what’s going down, than I am in offering prescriptions for change. I’m continually painting images where conflict, questioning, and struggle are players in the narrative. I like images where I’m not sure who is winning the contest.
Jerry Kearns, ‘Cold Shoulder’, 2005, collage on paper, 15.75″ x 15.75″
You’re not afraid to juxtapose different registers of imagery in your work. For instance you’ll adopt the iconography of comic books and fuse it with imagery of Christ or images of supermodels. The result is highly charged and ambiguous, the viewer forced to make some kind of sense out of it. Are some of the works intended to be more didactic than others? Or do you prefer an ambiguous terrain?
I think I gave clearer maps to possible meanings in the earlier works than in more recent images. For me, the recent works are more layered in their references, thus, a longer read than earlier images. I use the register shifts you refer to for several roles. One desire is to suggest a quantum perspective in locating one’s position in time/space relationships. Recent theories about time and space, such as the notion that our universe may be only one of millions or billions of others, influence my thinking. I also like the idea that the exact same event occurs simultaneously in multiple realities. As a consequence, I’m drawn to taking images from various contexts and repositioning our understanding of them by making sometimes jarring associations on the canvas. It may be that I’m an ambiguous didactic.
Jerry Kearns, ‘Earth Angel’, 1989, Acrylic on Canvas, 76″ x 100″, Private Collection
We’re so saturated with media imagery that we consciously forget that it’s loaded with an ideological content. ‘Earth Angel’ (1989) encourages a tripartite cross-examination of different imagery. You have Andy Warhol’s Elvis, Nick Ut’s iconic Vietnam War photograph of Kim Phuc running burnt and naked from a napalm strike, and John Paul Filo’s iconic photograph of the Kent State shootings. The result is an interrogation of hard and soft power.
I do like to question power, hard and soft. They sleep together. When we first encounter an image, we generally view it in isolation, as a separate event. Often, the image has a particular purpose that is frequently hidden from view. Over time, once isolated images morph or collage in our consciousness and form a kind of gestalt. In building the composite, we construct ways of seeing and interpreting reality. In paintings, I suggest that possibility by overlapping and morphing imagery. I collage so the viewer can see different notions of an idea at the same time. Collage is a visual ‘theory of relativity’. In constructing Earth Angel, I relied on most viewers knowing Elvis as a ‘bad boy’ alpha rock and roll hero. Later, we learned he was a drug addict. And, that he was also a reactionary, famously volunteering as a narcotics agent for Richard Nixon. Of course, the fact that he was stoned out of his mind when he volunteered is liberating. The six-gun toting image of Elvis was initially a movie still. The image is famous as part of Andy Warhol’s work. When first released, the Kent State images of middle-American college kids lying on the ground, dead and dying, killed by American soldiers sent an earthquake through the minds of millions. The iconic image of the Vietnamese child Kim Phuc, napalmed, naked, running with her arms spread wide in a crucifix gesture toward the viewer, exploded across the world’s TV screens and newspaper headlines. The searing images of the child’s tragedy brought the ugliness of war to American dinner tables. Layering the wounded child in Vietnam with dead college students in Ohio, and placing Elvis in the foreground, I collaged a matrix of thoughts about a specific time and place I experienced.
It seems to be that you are consciously holding images of soft power accountable for the real, historical events that can be situated through them.
I’m certainly would like to know more about how power and control works in America. We could all benefit from knowing more. I think it is useful to explore the dark matter and dark energy behind what we think. I’m particularly intrigued by the use of imagery in relation to the two. Whether it is the news, TV commercials, program content, magazine photos, the internet, or art itself, the control of information is central to maintaining power. I think art has a role to play in looking at the situation
Jerry Kearns, ‘Naked Brunch’, 1985, acrylic on Canvas, 96 ” x 85″, Private Collection
I find your use of comic book figures particularly brilliant. When you juxtapose them with historic imagery, you realize just how much those characters communicated certain anxieties about modern culture and American power. In particular, you tend to use the western iconography of the cowboy, the lone ranger and the detective.
Yeah, I often use heroes and villains many people would recognize. Cowboys and detectives are the same guy in different clothes. They’re key players in moving cherished notions of male identity through time. Cartoons, newspapers, television, etc, reflect the history of popular meaning. They write the story we share, they’re an alphabet made of shared visual language. They carry collective meaning through time. Cartoons are important messengers. Most of the fragments I have quoted reflect a specific time in American culture. Most of them originated in the EC comics classic series, ‘Haunt’, ‘Horror’, ‘The Crypt’, and others published in the fifties. I love the bold noir expressionism of the drawings. Publisher, William Gaines, was called to appear before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, to defend his freedom of expression in the mid-fifties. Comic books, as well as other most forms of entertainment, were attacked as un-American and detrimental to children.
Jerry Kearns, ‘Right of Way’, 1992, acrylic on canvas, 72″ x 86 1/2″, Collection of Kalamazoo Museum of Art
Tell me more about your historical portraits and landscapes.
When I started painting I chose the cartoon and the newspaper photograph as my image sources. The cartoon can be personal and psychological. A newspaper photograph is an official looking public image. When collaged, they present potential for depicting interior minds and public realities. After painting that interaction for four or five years, I wanted to get out of the news, and make images with a longer time frame. About then, a newly invented ink jet print technology began covering the urban landscape with building size advertisements. These often covered ten to fifteen floors of a building wall. Printed on giant tarps, the images read with photographic fidelity. I was excited, because it made possible a project I had been thinking about for a couple of years. The ink jet print was perfect for making large scale reproductions of 18th and 19th century portraits and landscape paintings.
Albert Bierstadt, ‘Among the Sierra Nevada, California’, 1872, oil on canvas, 72” x 120 1/8”, Smithsonian American Art Museum
I made inkjet reproductions of several iconic paintings, and then overlaid the prints with cartoon imagery, applied by hand. When I first started the project, I didn’t know that those magnificent paintings by Albert Bierstadt, George Heade, Asher B. Durand, and others were effectively real estate ads at the time they were painted. The artists and their paintings traveled around the Eastern seaboard. Popular displays were staged in theatrical theaters. The proscenium curtain would lift to reveal the paintings in stage sets. The landscapes looked pristine, virginal, very rarely were people depicted. The light in the images was thought of as celestial and was described as being from Heaven. The paintings were presented as pictures of the ‘New Eden’. The image campaign organized around the paintings was essential to selling the audience on becoming settlers, and moving west toward our ‘Manifest Destiny’.
Jerry Kearns, ‘Fair Hearing’, 1992, acrylic on canvas, 48″ x 38″
In the case of ‘Fair Hearing’ (1992) by juxtaposing the portrait of Charles Willson Peale with that of a comic book rendition of a Native American, you’re exposing the ideology behind both images.
I hope so. The ‘official’ portraits of the time operated in much the same way as the landscapes. I wanted to draw attention to the fact that those images had a very specific social and political impact. My intention, whenever I use a fragment or reproduction, is that it carry forward some of its history and intentionality. In a way, these paintings symbolically deface American history and art. That’s how some people saw the works. To me, they were like Duchamp’s drawing of a mustache on the‘Mona Lisa’. I was putting a mustache on the Mona Lisa’s of American history painting.
Jerry Kearns, ‘Repo Man’, 1984, acrylic on canvas, 84″ x 94″
One will find uncanny resonances in your paintings. In ‘Repo Man’ (1984), a grotesque, grinning zombie has the same expression as the photograph of Ronald Reagan placed in the background. What was the context behind that painting?
‘A grinning zombie’, I like the sound of that. Ronald Reagan was our Repo-Man. He took away many of the freedoms the population had won in the previous two decades. He always had a twilight zone dark side to him. I felt like the 1950s returned in cowboy Reagan during the 1980s. Under his flag, the American right moved to destroy the legacy of the counter cultural movements. They were out to ‘take back America’ from the decadence of the sixties. Reagan was the sheriff disciplinarian, riding back to clean up the town. He killed the unions, went after progressives, disciplined the universities, and changed the tax structure in favor of the wealthy, for starters. For me, the noir styled EC cartoons I quote seemed perfect for describing the time warp I felt. Zombies and werewolves were useful myths for describing my dismay. I’ve heard that vampires were initially symbols for greedy European aristocracy.
Jerry Kearns, ‘Foreign Affairs’, 1987, acrylic on canvas, 90″ x 90″, Collection of Ronald Meyers
Your work expresses a dissonance between how men and woman communicate and are represented in visual imagery. In ‘Foreign Affairs’ (1987) we see a couple lying in bed before the U.S. Capitol. There’s an emotional gulf between them and the scene suggests that some sort of violence has taken place, be it physical or emotional. The ambiguity makes it unnerving.
I’m drawn to images where the viewer in not sure what happened just before or after the moment on view. That unknown quality gives the painting a kind of cinematic motion. Around the time I made the painting, there were news stories circulating about sexual peccadilloes in Washington. While watching TV coverage, I was looking through some newspaper photos and saw the capital dome image. I was caught by the male/female power in the image. The capital dome is a giant cement breast filled with the milk of white male political power. Foreign Affairs collages a very private moment, rendered as a cartoon, against the building. What is going on between the man and the woman is any body’s guess.
Jerry Kearns, ‘Lesser Offense’, 1993, acrylic on canvas, 72″ x 62″
In ‘Lesser Offense’ (1993), the woman implores the man and his response to her is rendered in reverse. They too are emotionally isolated.
I depict relationships that sometimes make me uncomfortable and I’m not sure why. There is a lot of contradiction and conflict in my work. That has been my experience. I’ve seen a lot of conflict and contradiction. My view of it is framed by my personal experiences, as well as what I see among my peers, my friends, and the world around us. I see a lot of conflict and isolation in reality, and in the media.
Throughout the last decade you have been examining Christ as a savior figure. One could interpret your depictions of Christ as a critique of religious fundamentalism though I understand there have been some positive interpretations of these paintings too?
During 2003-2004, I fixated on the ways fundamentalism controlled our reality. Islamic and Christian, fundamentalism seemed to be dictating destiny. As for Jesus, he has been the Christian West’s warrior/savior for two thousand years. He is the alpha hero, one of the key sources of male identity in our culture. My family is Southern Baptist, from rural North Carolina. Jesus was the most influential image of my childhood. As for my use of his image now, I play with his and my meaning. I give him choices to make, things to do. The viewer judges. My use of his image is not limited to being a symbol for the rejection fundamentalism, though I do reject it.
Jerry Kearns, ‘Tucson’, 2008, acrylic on canvas, 72″ x 112″
When I first viewed these paintings, the one specific feature that really unnerved me was the clear, blue sky in the backgrounds. It took me a while whilst processing the fundamentalist imagery, to realize that it reminded me of 9/11. That calmness was a disturbing component of that day.
Yes it was. I was in Manhattan and well know the quality you’re describing. The tragedy yanked America into twenty-first century global terrorism. Before the attack, people knew about terrorists, such as Bin Laden, through television reports from far away. It was a distant, almost other worldly, phenomenon. Boom…here it was in Manhattan. I was on the Lower East Side, and watch the whole thing like it was a movie. Afterward, I started painting blue skies, and continued, over and over, dozens of clear September blues, for quite a while after. I can still see my idea of 9/11 blue. I think I use it to portend an unknown action that is about to burst the peace.
Jerry Kearns, ‘Bag Dad’, 2003-2004, acrylic and collage on paper, 21″ x 26″, Collection of San Francisco Museum of Art
Muscular figures appear throughout this period of your work. Why were you drawn to them?
I think my bodybuilders are images of distorted power, political and cultural. While we flex our muscles around the world, domestic media culture is obsessed with body opposites. In this time that the majority of the population are carbohydrate bloats – debilitated and ill, the media preaches the rewards of having the best abs and the tightest clothes available. Muscle and fat – greatness and obesity, gyrate through the landscape, at home and abroad. The muscular steroidal freaks of the bodybuilding scene lend me a tool for juxtaposing conflicting material and mental realities.
Jerry’s mock-up images next to ‘No! No! Yaaaee…’
Would you say your work demonstrates the contradictory nature of beliefs and images? That a photograph of a skimpy model has as much hold over us as an image of Christ?
I try to make images that engage the conversation between reality, perception, conception, and belief. I try to make works that are both believable and unbelievable, that present a dialogue between contrasting realities. We live in a world that is made of multiple realities. We’re biology based, and heading toward rebirth as cybrog technological. I’m painting the space between the two morphing realities. Although my body is bound by nature, I live mostly within a timeless culture, where definitions constantly dissolve and reform. I have to engage the space in-between.
In your upcoming book ‘Blue Eyed Devil’, the protagonist says as one point that ‘art is a cheap shot for immortality’.
That’s a complex idea, said first and better by others. The idea is that art and culture are ways of diverting the mind from death. The making of objects, buildings, movies, etc., is a vain stab at immortality, because these creations will outlive us.
Jerry Kearns’ studio
Recently you’ve begun replacing the clear blue skies with starry darkness.
During the recession of the last four years, we entered the night. We’re well into it. I don’t need to list the pain and chaos the Wall Street heist of the economy has wrought. Corruption and deception are leading us further into the darkness.
Since your historical works in the 90s you’ve found digital technology and printing to be an important part of your work.
I’ve always enjoyed Andy Warhol’s use of printing as painting. Like him, I want to use current advertising technology to produce my imagery. Magazines, newspapers and comic books, are all printed. I like the correspondence between the initial form and my fine art use of the source material.
There have been a number of high profile copyright lawsuits in the arts lately. Given your use of source material have you ever encountered a problem with a particular image?
Back in the early 1990s, I was invited to meet with lawyers for EC comics regarding possible violations. They were generously open to my work. We drew up a simple agreement granting limited use as long as I acknowledged the source. None one else has contacted me. Clearly, there can be copyright questions posed about my work and the work of hundreds if not thousands of artists over the past fifty years. Creating by quoting mass produced images is as natural as breathing to many artists of my and subsequent generations. The impulse is an inevitable part of our mediated experience. As I understand it, copyright law, drafted to protect written works, was not written for imagery. I’ve talked to a variety of copyright expects. They were divided on a number of definitions with regard to images. How much of the image you use, and whether you interfere with the marketability of an image is important. Are you’re competing with the original in some way? Are you using it alone or in relation to other imagery? Are you making an ironic or satirical remark? I’ve paid for copyrights at various times. If you try, you’ll find that there are multiple copyrights linked to media images. You could pay for two or three of them and still remain vulnerable. There’s no easy solution to it. Sometimes, with historic imagery and cartoons, I’ve credited the original artists on the back of my painting. The whole point of my work is that it originates in culture. I want viewers to know that the images are from magazines, newspapers and movies. I’m not trying to obscure that. To understand my work you need to view it as repositioned excerpts and quotes from other forms of visual culture.
Jerry Kearns, ‘One Trick Pony’, 2011, acrylic on canvas, 72″ x 92″ (detail)
To end, I want to briefly discuss your book ‘Blue Eyed Devil’. How much of the material is autobiographical?
Its all me, and the things I’ve been through. I think of the text and images as a ‘beggar’s lie’, that’s based on a careful attention to the facts. The story works like a dream. Sugar, the main character, is confused about who he is. Overly identified with Jesus and certain movie characters, he can’t see an authentic shelf. He spends a lot of time looking for his soul, which he isn’t sure even exists, and so forth. He worries that the physicists are right, and there isn’t much beyond the neuron goo that animates our brain. Finally, Sugar is almost totally preoccupied with building his story as a hedge against disappearance.
It can be quite harrowing to read because the details are often very personal, though you’re making the point that much of our own self identity is totally invented by the imagery and culture that surrounds us.
The story tells of Sugar’s struggles with understanding the relationship between daily experience and mythology. If pushed, I’d say the self, or the soul, lives in the story we invent to describe the passage of our body through time. In Blue Eyed Devil, Sugar mythologizes my experience. The result presents Sugar as an amalgam between his biology, his direct experience, and the media experiences bringing him the world beyond his body.
Jerry Kearns’ website: http://www.jerrykearns.com