It takes a lot to shock me, especially when it comes to sex (my own mother used the term TMI last week while I was discussing a certain after hours adventure). So last Thursday when I went to check out Richard Kern’s retrospective at Rental Gallery I expected to see some Vice Magazine-style pretty, harmless, almost-pornography, like the up-the-skirt series Kern showed at Feature Inc. last October. I was wrong. Apparently, shock value does exist, or at least it did in the 80s.
I was riding my tricycle down the Brooklyn Heights promenade and watching The Little Mermaid during the Cinema of Transgression years, so I missed the boat on the cult of Kern. His only work I was familiar with was music-related—a portrait of a nude, dickless Marilyn Manson with “cunt” scrawled in blood across his chest, and the super-trippy music video for Sonic Youth’s “Death Valley 69.” The exhibition at Rental covered precisely the New York years I missed out on, culturally–when you were more likely to find a discarded needle than a Mocha Frappuccino on Avenue A–specifically, 1982-1999.
When I arrived at the opening, the gallery was already packed with hordes of Kern’s followers lining up for his autograph and milling about in hopes of catching Thurston Moore by the wine table. Schmooze-induced-laughter filled the room, making the frightened, naked women on the walls appear almost ironic. Adding to the chaos was the sound of nails on a chalkboard, screams for mercy, and piercing guitar feedback—the soundtrack to Kern’s films, which were playing in Rental’s smaller front room. Normally, just hearing the phrase “free wine” makes me feel at ease, but amidst smiling, whispering patrons and Kern’s intentionally creepy photographs, I felt strangely inhibited, even after glass three.
Kern’s lens focuses in on the darker elements of sexual nature. The women tied and gagged in his bondage portraits are not shown at the height of their sexual ecstasy—they simply look uncomfortable. Excruciatingly uncomfortable, and eternally trapped in the 90s (complete with pale skin, dark makeup, leather and excessive piercings). This discomforting awkwardness is only enhanced by the elements of innocence in Kern’s young subjects, which suggest a struggle towards sexual awareness.
While Kern’s newest fashion photography is casually glamorous (I picture all of his Vice models lounging in trust-funded Brooklyn lofts), his old work reflects the grittiness of the needle era they were taken in. In a sense, the retrospective at Rental was perfectly timed with the state of our economy and the city’s virtual unaffordability. Pre-glitz New York is a myth us twenty-somethings idealize as if it were Wonderland. This could also explain why there were so many young people at the opening, despite the fact that we were clearly sipping juice-boxes while Kern was shooting Fingered.
Surprisingly, the photo I found most disturbing did not feature gags or blood. It was a simple nude portrait of a not-so-attractive, slightly chubby redhead, cupping her breasts with a look of pained insecurity in her eyes. The shot made me question my own reaction–did I find the photo eerie because it showed an uncomfortably normal kind of sexuality I didn’t expect to see? Because it was blatantly un-sexy? Because the models self consciousness made me acutely self aware? Needless to say, many of Kern’s portraits left me feeling icky, but at least it was the contemplative kind of icky.
Very few of Kern’s vintage portraits represent women in positions of power, and when they do, that power is directly derived from phallic imagery, negating any hope of feminist interpretation (in fact, feminists, run for your lives!). In one of these photos, a heroin-skinny, almost-androgynous woman leans against her pickup, pointing a rifle. There is an eerie vacancy in her eyes and empty beer cans line the windshield. In the other, a woman aims her gun, and her strap on, simultaneously. Lovely. The works I most appreciated were perhaps Kern’s least extreme–the zombie-esque still shot of Lung Leg from Kern’s film You Killed Me First (that also became the cover of Sonic Youth’s EVOL), as well as his more voyeuristic, less masochistic shots.
I worked up the nerve to check out the film portion of the exhibition just in time to catch two women adorn their male lover with lipstick, then proceed to fuck him with strap-ons (in the mouth and ass, respectively). But wait, there’s more: the strap-ons (inexplicably) have the ability to produce jizz–a penis-envy dream come true! I could comment about how this might be a feminist statement, but I fear the National Organization for Women would come after me (with dildos).
After a clip of a vagina being sewn shut, I decided it was past my bedtime. I appreciate Richard Kern for proving that, despite years of Internet porn and an obsession with Henry Miller, I can still be shocked and disturbed by some truly fucked up art.