From the functional to the slyly fashionable: the two sides to Stefan Kern
From the functional to the slyly fashionable: the two sides to Stefan Kern
If you happened to see Galerie Karin Günther’s booth at Berlin’s ABC art fair in 2013 or stopped by the Hamburg gallery in the summer of 2014 or if you made it to the Berlin gallery Luis Campaña this winter, it would have been easy to think you’d wound up in a trashy fashion boutique. The handbag sculptures shown in each venue by the artist Stefan Kern seemed like deliberately guilty pleasures. Some of them were clearly recognizable as replicas of recent products by some of the best-known fashion brands yet each of these sculptures were vividly candy-coloured, fabricated in metal and finished in high-gloss enamel paint.
With a practice spanning more than 20 years, Kern has reinvented himself as a sculptor through these works. Now he seems intent on converting the ideals of still life into representational sculpture. Not through arrangements of fruit or venison depicting the transience of life in accordance with the strictures of the still life tradition, however. Instead the self-confessed Vogue reader finds his vanitas motif in the world of fashion: he prefers to take a shoulder bag by Moschino, weld it in aluminium and lovingly smear it in enamel paint (FM, 2014). Jeremy Scott’s designs for Moschino’s spring 2014 collection, which aped the corporate identity of the world’s largest hamburger chain, McDonalds, saw the American designer follow in the footsteps of the fashion house’s founder, Franco Moschino. The clown of the 1980s fashion world, Moschino printed the fabric of his blouses and skirts with fried eggs and embroidered the words ‘Expensive Jacket’ on the back of a blazer, where bikers typically sport their club logos.
Copying Scott’s Moschino design, Kern replicated the fast-food giant’s classic red french fries carton with the golden arches of the logo bent into a heart. Only a tangled drawstring revealed its source as a hand-bag. Instead of ketchup and fries, Kern’s bag was filled with a handful of broken-off Mercedes badges giving rise to another absurd escalation – the ambiguity of the rebellious attitude and luxury appeal of handbag and artwork alike. The least expensive Moschino handbag can be purchased for just under 1,000 Euros, Kern’s sculpture itself costs a bit more than that and a carton of fries can be bought for something else altogether. One can easily become disoriented by this intricate interplay of value allocation and irony: the mocking treatment of the brand names ranging from the fast food-selling mega-corporation to the exclusive posturing of the fashion label, on to the even more exclusive and possibly even more ironic position of the artist himself.
As glaring as this circus of references is, it is only a mere sideshow. In and of themselves, the works function pretty happily just as objects. They’re fun, and they’d still be if we didn’t recognize the motifs or subtexts behind them. The glister of the enamelled surfaces and their dynamic designs exert their own effect, but also bear flashes of an anarchic aggression, underscored by the fact that many of these bag sculptures seem as if they’ve been ripped apart. Using sheet aluminium he recreates a ‘Bao Bao’ bag by Issey Miyake in blue, turquoise, and black, but in a state of destruction, recognizable only through the characteristic pattern of square and triangular forms (BB, 2014). Other bags held together only on one side splay outwards in a way that evokes the cut-open animal cadavers in the paintings of Chaim Soutine (e.g. Carcass of Beef, 1925). On the surface of another (TB, 2014), the red from the sliced-open interior bleeds into the elegant cream tone of the outer skin in a dramatic, painterly way. A ‘Gun Bag’ that Hedi Slimane designed for Yves Saint Laurent in an aggressive, metallic pistachio green reveals a delicate mauve spot where the artist has cut it open (YSL, 2014). Like a wound, the area is worked over in filigree, suggestive of a flower if it weren’t so clearly reminiscent of a vulva. In short, an erotic power suggestive of the body and its surfaces can be found in these works regardless of the pedigree of their reference.
These latest handbag works by Kern possess a lightness distinct from the functional sculptures he made throughout the 1990s and 2000s. Kern made his first sculpture for a public space, in the small Hessian city of Langen, while he was still studying at the Städelschule in Frankfurt. This work, Skulptur um Verteilerschränke (Sculpture Around Junction Boxes, 1993), nestles like a ring around two electricity junction boxes which stand somewhat sadly back to back. Formed of a ledge running around the boxes, the sculpture is a bench of sorts. Only a slightly different tone from the enclosed grey boxes, today, as Kern intended, it’s hardly perceived as an artwork at all. Anyone who takes a seat on the bench is rewarded with a cold bottom, but has a view of the small Hessian town’s two main historical sights, a 19th-century church and a 16th-century fountain. The bench in Langen was the prototype for a series of functional sculptures that oscillate between a formal conceptual rigour and a participatory agenda. As Vanessa Müller put it, writing about Kern’s sculptures in 2000: ‘the objects move between art and design, they can be somehow used, and yet are strangely lacking in function. They call upon the viewer to take a seat, and when one answers this call, they feel like seats on a tribune with a privileged view: from art into everyday life.’1
Another example of this mix of formalism and social engagement is the 1994 work Ohne Titel (Sofa-Skulptur) (Untitled [Sofa Sculpture]), realized for the booth of his then Galerie Hammelehle and Ahrens at the Cologne Art Fair. A kind of 360-degree sofa, the work comprised a box of pebble-gray wood enclosing a rectangle of leather-uphostered seats. For the artist, this piece was primarily about exclusivity. ‘The sofa sculpture delineates a space within a space’, as Kern told me. ‘In order to sit, the viewer has to climb over the back of the sofa and, acting against an inner impulse, step over the lightly coloured, untreated leather upholstery. The work addresses the formation of cliques in the art world, a familiar thing to all.’
A restless, almost obsessive worker, Kern has continuously sought to refine the level of technical perfection in his works. Over the years, he remodelled his Hamburg studio into a metal workshop so he could personally carry out the greatest number of fabricating tasks possible, from welding to painting. He only entrusts specialists with the manufacture of large projects, such as his sculpture Baiser (2003), which bears four coats of paint topped with an anti-graffiti layer. The outdoor work, installed in Stuttgart and which visitors can walk through, is almost as brilliantly white as it was on the day it was installed. It looks as though it had been made from a single curved pipe, and snakes upward of 12 feet. Placed in the centre of a roundabout, it resembles an absurd gingerbread-Futurist pavilion. The meringue pastry the sculpture is named after should taste as light as a kiss. In French, ‘baiser’ means ‘to kiss’, but in the vernacular, it means ‘to fuck’, in a very literal sense, or, ‘to rip off’. Taken in the last sense the title seems doubly apt given that the sculpture was originally made for AUSSENDIENST (2000–01), a public art project initiated by Stephan Schmidt-Wulffen in Hamburg. There it was intended as an oversized coiled water hose that was supposed to be installed on a traffic island in front of the Hotel Atlantic, where people would wait to clean the windshields of cars stopped at the red light. The design included a water source for the workers, but the Hamburg Senate, perhaps uneasy with this blend of social aid and public sculpture, cancelled the project and the Hamburg hose ended up as the Stuttgart meringue.
This little tale about Baiser reveals a certain insouciance to authority on the part of Kern. The subversive humour so evident in his later works is already discernible and through this, his break with the idea of a functional, participatory art is already hinted at in the 2005 sculpture Grüne Bank (Green Bench). As elaborately crafted as his earlier works, with perfect welding seams and a typically flawless enamel surface, the sculpture’s colour scheme and form borrows from the classic park bench. However, the bench sculpture sags in the middle, its legs comically splayed, as though a massive weight has been dropped on it. Kern perfected this broken bench to the point that it seems almost surreally flawless – less a bench vandalized in real life and more like one lifted from a comic book. Despite its broken appearance, the bench, which the artist has casually referred to as ‘epileptic’, is still in use as a piece of furniture in a centre for brain research in Bonn. Up until this point, through his emphasis on functionality, ergonomics, and site-specificity, Kern’s perfectionist designs revealed an intention to embue his works with a kind of borrowed institutional authority, while the artist himself could retreat into the shadows occupied by the technician. Like the Hamburg water hose’s intended functioning water supply, the bent bench also articulates a certain sympathy for society’s less privileged members.
Two years on from the bench and Kern’s works were no longer even partially utilitarian. In his 2007 exhibition Aus der Kurve geflogen (Missed the Turn) at Galerie Karin Günther, the artist showed an ensemble of sculptures that looked like bent barriers, police lines and traffic bollards (the exhibition then travelled to Luis Campaña, Cologne, and Andrew Kreps, New York). While seeming at first glance to be a makeshift representation of a crime scene, this show elevated Kern’s investigation into the contradictions between functionality, context and autonomy to a new level. These sculptures were variations on objects that serve to regulate traffic. Deformed barriers in bright colours took on a theatrical effect, becoming sensuous, metaphorical and narrative. Viewed together, the works drew a picture of a permanent state of emergency. Orange and white traffic tape made of painted aluminium strips seem to flutter in the wind, calling to mind bulging baroque garments or the billowing word banners of 16th- and 17th-century engravings. In the series Bling Bling (2008), Kern worked with yet more aluminium banners, painting them in ever more electrifying colours and suspending them from the ceiling on cables. Entirely liberated from their functionality – except for a purely ‘surface’ fascination and status alluded to in the title – these works seem, in retrospect, to be playful and innocent exercises for his meaner, trashier handbag works.
In the greatest possible contrast to his earlier practice, sharp and jagged edges, glittery effects, drops of enamel paint and hysterical colours are now incorporated stylistically into the handbag series in a surprisingly expressive and virtuosic way. It’s this sadistic, destructive aspect that renders the slapstick in these works truly liberating. Yet Kern’s aggression is directed not only against the unaffordable luxury goods market, but also inwardly, against his own fear of failure, the oppression and tension of his own perfectionism.
Kern has always been concerned with a redefinition, derived from everyday motifs, of the concept of sculpture. Now he does so without hiding the aggressive edge to this impulse. At the same time the energy set free in these sculptures is playful and infectious. Standing before the artist’s newer works, viewers become witness to a form of virtuosity, itself astonished to be teasing out something new from the tools it has been using for years. A creative potential born from the will to destroy.
Translated by Andrea Scrima
1 Vanessa Müller, Die neunziger Jahre hinterlassen Kunst zum Anfassen und Hinsetzen, Der Tagesspiegel from 12 May 2000, online: http://www.tagesspiegel.de/kultur/die-neunziger-jahre-hinterlassen-kuns…, accessed on 3.9.2015