By Randy Gladman
On a recent Saturday afternoon, I found myself standing in front of a series of framed photographs by Richard Kern, writing in my journal notes that seemed more like Penthouse letters than art criticism. “Staring wantonly into the camera lens, Lucy slides her delicate hand into her bikini bottom, daring the viewer to come to her with a glance impregnated with innocence and desire… Now taking a soothing post-coital haul from her Marlboro, the buxom blonde opens her legs to reveal the used condom still protruding from her vagina and the mess her unseen lover has left inside her legs.” “Oh my God,” I hear gasped behind me.
A middleaged woman had just entered the gallery, looking as small-town as Shelly Long in an infomercial, obviously not aware of what she was about to encounter. I didn’t hear the rest of the brief discussion she had with her companion in front of the works, their whispers barely resounding in the small empty room. Embarrassed, they quickly scurried away, clearly fearing for their morality and their souls, but only after glancing at each work with temperate shocked disbelief.
Richard Kern’s models pose before his lens in manners most people only ever experience with their most intimate partners. Tucked safely into the backroom of Feature Inc., his newest offering of color photographs achieves the same transcendence of pornography and sensuality expected from this small-town Baptist boy. Treading in the shallow underground waters that flow periodically between art and porn, Kern’s images carry the feeling of privacy and intimacy you normally draw only from those home movies or Polaroid/digital pictures of your past sexual partners you keep locked away in a dusty box, somewhere hidden from your current lover. Standing before the beautiful works, a feeling of invasion of someone else’s private life smacks of embarrassment. I was reminded of an ugly college party I passed through years ago, watching a fifth generation, grainy copy of the infamous Pamela Anderson/Tommy Lee video. This was a record, albeit pornographic, of a couple in love, a personal memory of their vacation time together. It was never intended to be viewed by anyone other than the two stars/camera operators, and made me feel dirty and wrong watching it with a roomful of howling my stomach turned with the uncomfortable realization that I was a pervert again, voyeuristically peeking into the private lives of total strangers. And yes, enjoying it.
But unlike unfortunate Pam and Tommy who (apparently) didn’t know at the time of filming that they would be the coming attraction to VCR near you, these models knew what they were doing, and appear to be relishing the very exhibitionism of the medium. The artist has hired these women, not simply subjected them to a post-coital photo session, and posed them knowingly and purposefully. These situations are created, not caught.
Digital photography, with its ease of use and lack of laboratory developing, brought private photography to the masses in a scale the Polaroid never achieved, and created home pornographers out of all of us. No longer fearing that Billy the camera geek at the local drugstore foto-mat would file through your snapshots, home pornography has become a viable and favorite pastime for new lovers and anniversaried pairs trying new spices. (You know what I am talking about, don’t you?) Although Kern’s works are not digitally manipulated in any way, the actors they depict have the comfort level of trusting lovers and resemble the intimate moments captured for private consumption made possible by home digital photography. Yet, these girls have accepted the artist’s camera and perform before it, decidedly challenging the viewers to stare, contorting their bodies and divulging their secrets, clearly aware of the shock value of their revealing openness. Natacha Merritt has taken this performative aspect to a more personal level in her Taschen publication Digital Diaries (2000), by placing herself before her camera, laying bare her own, very real sex life with the same shocking earnestness as Kern’s actors. Kern, however, has been at this project for many years, and Merritt’s images, while more beautiful aesthetically, are clearly derivative of Kern’s ability to elevate pornography to a personal level of art while at the same time soiling the pictures with enough dirt to render their scopophilic pleasure absolute.
By Randy Gladman. Originally published in NY Arts, July/August 2001