FOR YEARS, Arthur Kern was the "mystery man" of the New Orleans art world. After earning his B.F.A. and M. F A degrees in painting from Tulane University in the mid-1950s and studying at the McCrady Art School on Bourbon Street, he was featured in solo shows at Ruth White Gallery in New York and included in a group exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1962. Then, he made a drastic change of direction. In 1967, at the age of 35, he consigned his remaining paintings to a bonfire and embarked on becoming a sculptor. At the same time he withdrew from the art market to a studio off Tchoupitoulas Street where he worked on developing a sculpture technique based on casting wax molds with a special polyester resin. While he was absent from the galleries, Kern wasn't exactly a hermit; he taught painting and drawing at the University of Southern Louisiana and Tulane University from the '60s to the '90s. All the while he was secretly working on his sculpture.
In 2016, at the age of 86, Kern finally emerged, persuaded to show his work in an exhibition at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans, in an exhibition titled "Arthur Kern: The Surreal World of a Reclusive Sculptor." Curated by John Berendt, author of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, it attracted a lot of positive attention including a review in The New York Times. Kern's sculptures are startling, powerful representations of images that seem to come from an archetypal realm.
Now, he is having his first gallery show in more than four decades, at Callan Contemporary, also in his home city of New Orleans. The exhibition, which opens on March 5 and runs through April, focuses mainly on Kern's equestrian sculptures, a theme that is deeply resonant for the artist. "There's such a history between humans and horses," says Kern." Not only have they gotten us from one place to another, they've also worked our fields, fought our wars, and done so much of our work. There's a richness in that relationship."
Kern's horses are massive, smoothly curved, and peaceful. The layers of translucent lacquers Kern applies give their surfaces a rich patina. The human figures sitting on them seem to flow and merge into the horses' bodies, as if they were becoming one--the ancient dream of the centaur. Other themes explored by Kern include the mirror; one piece shows a face that looks like it comes from a Classical statue, slightly distorted and repeated within a hand mirror. In one of his more Surreal works, a little girl balances on a disembodied hand. In another, an egg cracks to reveal a human face within.
The sculptures in the Callan exhibition are not editions but unique works, and they range from small scale to monumental. Kern has said, "To have a fully conceived idea before I start a piece would seem wrong to me. I like to explore and be surprised by what I find along the way." Visitors to this rare exhibition of his art will no doubt be surprised, as well.