If there were ever a museum show that needed a spoiler alert, it would be “Arthur Kern: The Surreal World of a Reclusive Sculptor.”
So for maximum effect, stop reading now and head to the top floor of the Ogden Museum of Southern Art.
Though he served on the fine art faculty at Tulane University for many years and has worked in a studio off Tchoupitoulas Street for decades, Kern remains an elusive figure. He has rarely exhibited his work publicly, and there are relatively few examples of it in public or private collections.
There’s not much information on either him or his work online, either: A Google image search turns up a handful of examples of his art and even less information about the artist himself.
But perhaps such background information isn’t necessary. Kern’s career retrospective turns out to be a revelation and benefits from being somewhat of a surprise. There’s a thrilling sense of discovery of a singular artist whose work deserves to be much better known.
The exhibition is curated by John Berendt, author of “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.” Given Berendt’s penchant for mystery and eccentricity, it’s not difficult to see why he was drawn to Kern’s work.
“The craftsmanship of Kern’s work is astonishing,” said Berendt. “Kern achieves a near-limitless range of patinas — bronze, sandstone, leather, terra cotta, rusted iron, pewter, and in the case of his human figures, actual skin with the faint flush of blood coursing beneath the surface.”
To begin exploring the show, start in the hallway gallery between the two main exhibition spaces, which features a selection of pieces that Ogden curator Bradley Sumrall calls “proto-steampunk” in their use of industrial materials and objects that resemble surgical implements.
Each one incorporates distorted fragments of human faces staring back at the viewer through thick layers of glass, giving the series the disquieting aura of a collection of specimens in a circus sideshow or cabinet of medical curiosities.
Four of Kern’s large-scale cast resin horse sculptures occupy the main gallery, all of which show his technically impressive surfaces. (The effect is derived from automobile paint and tools Kern designed himself.) One features a rider who appears to be merging with its horse, while it’s hard to tell for sure whether the ghostly cloak atop another horse conceals any rider at all.
A series of small equestrian sculptures surrounding the larger pieces all descend from a single model, also on view, that Kern created over 45 years ago. Some seem to be melting before your eyes, while one shows what appears to be one of Degas’ ballet dancers perched serenely atop a horse caught in its death spasm.
But it’s the pieces in a smaller gallery nearby that present Kern’s artistic vision in its most unsettling detail. Three sculptures at the entrance resemble crucified and splayed remains of torture victims, save for their high degree of polish and formal rigor (which make them even more disturbing).
Other pieces in that same gallery — a headless nude woman sitting placidly on a throne scooped out of the back end of a cow, two deformed men in masks holding a female figure alight — are similarly equal parts engaging and macabre, like Hieronymous Bosch figures come to three-dimensional life.
Seemingly sprung fully formed from the artist’s unconscious, the works remain mysterious and enigmatic. You may not warm to some of Kern’s art, but it’s unlikely you’ll forget it, either.
And keep in mind that we’re fortunate to have the opportunity to see it at all.
“Arthur Kern worked on his sculptures for 40 years without giving any serious thought to exhibiting them or putting them up for sale,” said Berendt. “He was concerned that if he started selling his work, he would eventually become influenced by the whims of the marketplace. He preferred his independence.”