It’s hard to say what struck one most forcefully about this show of five wall paintings and eight new canvases. Was it Jerry Kearns’s over-the-top verbal humor, infusing the exhibition title “RRRGGHH!,” the “KNOCK, KNOCK” repeatedly inscribed in bright letters on the door and the purple “SKREEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!!” that snaked along an interior wall (as though one were literally walking into a classic Tom Wolfe text)? Was it his comic-book-style imagery, much of it deliberately jumbled and incongruous—like David Salle played for laughs? Was it the seriousness underlying Kearns’s repeated figure of Christ dressed as a cowboy and caught up in a deadly shoot-out with the forces of evil? Was it the compositional adroitness and skilled sense of color in the artist’s depiction of a solitary modern-dress Charon on the verge of losing control of his boat, or a titular Day Dreamer (2004), in bed with his eyes closed, magically inverted on the top of the canvas with his visions (clouds, flowers, a snake, a chubby girl seen up-skirt, the dreamer himself awake in an anxious sweat) circling below? Whatever the answer—and the best one would include all these elements—the show was certainly a confirmation of the power and legitimacy of viewing pleasure.
That experience—all too rare of late—is not unrelated to the fact that, back in the 1980s, Kearns was known as a political artist: one who showed at edgy alternative venues like Exit Art, who worked alongside Lucy Lippard in the 1980-86 advocacy group Political Art Documentation and Distribution, and who did not hesitate to portray a stereotypically handsome North American couple, wide-eyed in their bed, haunted by ghostly oversize heads severed by Salvadorian death squads (Talking Heads, 1985; not in the show). “RRRGGHH!” might seem deeply contrary to that early seriousness, but is it really?
Kearns’s work, rife with mass media imagery, has always reflected its times, and today—at least within the commercial art world bubble—we live in the age of Koons, not of Kollwitz. What’s more, Kearns has long found conceptual richness in a dialectic (or is it a Mexican stand-off?) between narrative and collage—between an urge to tell rousing, momentum-driven stories and a need to acknowledge the nearly paralyzing fragmentation, plurality, contradiction and all-at-onceness of contemporary life, now magnified exponentially by digital means.
In such a situation, what can you do, if you are, say, appalled when the inept Western-marshal mentality of George W. Bush is transferred from the sagebrush environs of Crawford, Tex., to a global theater of war? Well, you can—if you are an artist raised Southern Baptist in North Carolina and steeped in 1950s-era comic strips, pulp novels, movies and advertising, to say nothing of the later Pop art techniques of subtle mockery—paint a Cowboy Christ who attempts unsuccessfully, in picture after picture, to right all the world’s wrongs. To show that “hero” getting blasted away at while being distracted by a femme fatale (HEY COWBOY, 2014), or falling helplessly, Mel Brooks High Anxiety fashion, through the spiral void of the Guggenheim Museum (BAM BAM, 2010-13), is to convey a message that is pointedly political and more. This work suggests that no one is the Redeemer—not the lone Christ, not the lone gunman, not the lone president, not the lone artist. Social woes, we infer, require social solutions. And maybe a good sense of humor.