ARTIST AT WORK, 1968 NYC
Born in 1944 in NYC, Kerner attended the Art Students League from 1964-66 where he studied figurative drawing. Living and working at the Chelsea Hotel during the late 60's and mid 70's, he emerged out of the explosive art movement that defined his generation. In 1968 he received the optimal grant in painting from the NEA. Through the years, his paintings have been exhibited in museums, galleries and acquired and collected throughout the world.
"His work has been embraced for its originality, vitality and generosity of spirit."
'THE SPACE BETWEEN LIFE AND ART '
Stephen Kerner lives with parrots and macaws. His home, on top of a mountain overlooking the Hudson Valley, contains a very large aviary, there the birds can fly and speak their mysterious messages. The walls of this room are mostly glass, so that beyond the color and brightness of the parrots one can see the soft green of pine trees in the distant mist of the Ashokan Reservoir. The energy and vividness of the macaws, the distant silent landscape, these inform Kerners intense paintings, a body of work that can be still or chaotic, that can evoke twentieth century Expressionism or African possession or the prehistoric cave paintings of the earliest artists, that can be both forceful and silent at the same time, that does not so much tell stories as go beyond stories to their deepest origins.
The curious thing is, this body of work goes back long before Kerner and his wife Connie bought the house and brought the parrots to live with them. The bird-headed women, the blank-faced angels who can appear not so much painted as allowed to emerge, the flashes of energy, the bright noise set against the deepest silence--no matter when Kerner painted them, they seem to point to the life he lives now even as they include his time spent in different countries and worlds of art, Jackson Pollock to Lakota and Mexican shamans to the Yoruba traditions of Nigerians living in New York.
Kerners paintings often feel outside of time itself, drawing on something very old, beyond culture, almost beyond thought. In his life he sometimes steps outside of time as well, thinking of an image, a scene, and later discovering its ancient roots in a culture he had not even encountered when that image came to him. Once, he thought of a tear in a dogs eye and then visited a people who had long considered that tear to be the journey across a river, to another shore, to death.
Kerner talks of being informed from an energy beyond nature, not so much spirits as places, what he referred to as Going North to the Unknown. True artists often seem to follow an instinct that leads them to the influences the need to be able to do their work. It is not so much that the art and people they encounter shape what they do as that they unconsciously know where to go to find the work and the experiences the need to create what is already inside of them, unformed.
Kerners history is varied and wide-ranging. He spent intense periods among the Indians of Oaxaca, Mexico and the Lakota of the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, where the deep winters helped shape that timeless intensity. He has learned much from Nigerian and Aboriginal artists, absorbing the images and techniques used to bring to life the Orishas and tribal trans-cultural spirit-ancestors.
His work, however, is never simply a repetition of tribal traditions, for he passses it through a filter of Modern Art, in particular American Expressionism. In some of his we can glimpse Modigliani--the bright colors, the sometimes attenuated forms, the faces drawn with the simplest of lines, though here we can also see the strong presence of Afro-Cuban influences. And the there is the drawing Horns And Hoofs, from 1983, Kerners intensification of the 17,000 year old paintings in Lascaux Cave. In the lower right of that picture we see what looks like an animal-headed shaman amidst the density of bulls and horses.
Compare this scene to The Horse And The Crow, acquired by Euro-Petrol Corp. in 1985, or its re-working as The Journey in 2001. In those two paintings we see a deliberate crude horse, a bird-headed human in the simplest of lines, a woman more suggested than delineated, and in the later painting, the outlined form of an angel with yellow wings, encapsulated in green light. Kerner has taken the complexity of pre-history and reduced and intensified it, freeing it from both time and culture. Where, The Horse And The Crow breaks down the forms, as if the painting had existed for thousands of years and the paint had decayed to its essence, the later Journey gives bright primary colors, with a sense of creatures that have existed for longer than memory, impervious to the destruction of physical decay.
As well as different art traditions, we can see the improvisational quality of jazz in Kerners work, but these paintings dont so much show the formalism of classical jazz, with its strict chord structures, as the open explorations of such figures as Ornette Coleman. Interestingly, Colemans paintings bear a certain resemblance to Kerners work as their lives crossed early in the 1960s at the Chelsea Hotel.
Perhaps we could name Kerners paintings World Art. However, his paintings always go beyond any simple reference. Kerner has said, My main work is telling stories. But what kind of stories and how are they told? Clearly, we have moved a great distance from traditional story-telling in Western painting, with recognizable scenes from Greek mythology or the Bible. Nor are Kerners figures marked by any recognizable iconography, as with Yoruba depictions of Orisha. And further, they do not reflect any detailed private system of stories and characters, as with William Blake whose use of color and form can sometimes resemble Kerner. Instead, these figures go to the most basic sense of story, images that arise from the unconscious before we elaborate them into plots and characters and explanations. Just because they do not carry any such reference, we can find our own, such as the three angels from Genesis, or the shroud-like figures on canyon walls whom Native Americans call ghost healers.
His earlier work strongly resembles the silver amulets given to women in labor in India, rectangular, with seven or eight stick figure goddesses all in a row as can clearly be seen in his painting called Its About Seven. Kerner, of course, knew nothing of these talismans when he painted this mural work. In some cultures and times, such as the European Renaissance, the work of the artist involves translating known images and stories into form and color.
The contemporary artist, open to so many traditions of imagery and narrative, can descend to a purer place, the well from which those traditions draw their complex ideas. Kerner has said that the Head Series represents the essence of his work in the early 1990s. While the form is basically the same for all of them, with similarities in the eyes and mouths, they are each distinct, using color and texture in ways that both merge and separate.
There is no distinct iconography and certainly no personality in the conventional sense of Western portrait, yet there is no mistaking their unique cultural blending and uniqueness. These works are both internal and external at the same time, self-contained yet staring back at us with a feeling of looking through the viewer with a multitude of a barely visible single face. These images feel both ancient and beyond time, something that holds us and removes us from our ordinary world. This collection of paintings is indeed Stephen Kerner at his best, exciting and serene, clear and mysterious, all at once.
ARTIST STEPHEN KERNER AT HIS MONTAUK, NEW YORK STUDIO.