Sam Kerson
visual and performance artist
reviews

Cosmic Visions

By Kelly Hunter, Astro-Mythologist

Artists have a way of turning into global consciousness.  They express this in mythic images that convey the “signs of the times”.  Sam Kerson’s works excite the imagination and touch into deep layers of the pshyche, our inner knowing.  Words cannot convey our deepest feelings and spiritual experience.  As technical advances raise the speed limit on the information highway, making the global village ever busier, and the Hubble telescope shows us galaxies that send us back in time billions of years, it is more important than ever to find a meaningful vision for our lives.  Mythic images arise from the soul and speak of universal laws that guide us to live in harmony with the cosmos.  Thus it is appropriate that images inspired by the Equinox, a universal holy day, are showing in the hallowed halls of mundane law.  In the planetary pantheon, remote planet Pluto has the last say.  Imagine the blue faced Hindu god, Shiva, Lord of the Dance, now performing a ritual healing in Sagittarius, sign of “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.”  Says who?  The god of death and rebirth is stripping down our blind justice.  It’s time to take the blindfold off.  We are compelled to seek a higher truth and a wider vision that can inspire future generations. 

As you enter Dancing the Equinox moon, what you see is a magic mirror, telling the never-ending stories of our lives in a time that calls for a compelling new vision.  Let us create it together.  Artists remind us that the highest arts are the Arts of Living and of Loving. 

Dancing the Equinox Moon

by Daniel Hecht

By the time the forces of color and form collide on Sam Kerson’s paper, other convergences have already shaped the work, many of which are readily visible in his “Autoretrato” of 1998.  The self-portrait shows a bearded man in his late middle years, centered in the frame, wearing green hat and jacket,  To his left, the leering, red face of a devil; to his right, against a night-blue background, a dancing skeleton.:  the red, horned god of sensual temptation, lust, procreation, and the inevitable end result of bones.  The artist appears strong, determined, yet casts a somewhat uneasy eye in the direction of the latter. 

For Sam Kerson, the images are only secondarily symbolic.  He has simply painted himself among objects typical in his Worcester studio:  The devil’s face is a paper-mâché mask, the skeleton a larger than-life theatrical puppet.  “Autoretrato”, and each of the pieces in the Dancing the Equinox Moon, bears witness to the important role of the theatre arts and dramatic narratives in Kerson’s life and art.  His early work with street theatre in San Francisco in 1970, followed by association with Peter Schumann’s Bread and Puppet Theatre, led him by degrees to the plastic media:  first to create basic props and sets, later to render more sophisticated masks and puppets.  Though initially intended as tools in service to theatre, these increasingly became artifacts complete and meaningful in their own right. 

Kerson’s meeting with Middlesex artist Robert Fisher in 1980 propelled him definitively into the more structured realm of paper r canvas within a delimiting frame.  Fisher, a student of the German-born artist Hans Hofmann, introduced Kerson to the powerful compositional imperatives of the abstract expressionist school.  Many elements of the style still inform Kerson’s work:  the prominent use of negative space, Hofmann’s “plastic problem” and “dynamics of push and pull,” and an affinity for the juxtaposition of primary colors.  Similarly, Kerson’s process retains Hofmann-derived Cubist influences, as he develops the initial charcoal drawing through a series of planar constructions – so evident in the 1998 “Autoretrato” and builds each work upon a geometric, architectural foundation. 

More immediate influences, however, are apparent both in Kerson’s aesthetics and his themes:  the great Mexican revolutionary muralists Jose Clemente Orozco and Diego Rivera.  He first glimpsed Orozco’s mural, “History of the New World,” at Dartmouth College in 1959; its powerful impact was later reinforced during frequent trips to Central and South America, where Kerson viewed hundreds of murals and canvasses by the revolutionary social realist school.  Drawn by their narrative drama, social relevance, and vivid color, he increasingly sought to incorporate in his won work the themes of revolutionary conflict, the plight of indigenous peoples, and the struggle for social justice. 

As with the great murals, Kerson’s pastels are imbued with a sense of physical vigor, and often portray people at work or in conflict, in appropriately robust, rhythmic compositions.  Drawing from life, he likes to work in the open air, searching out the motif in sometimes arduous treks into the mountains, fields, and streets.  Equally kinetic, the work itself begins with vigorous strokes that articulate the essential compositional elements; Kerson then “paints like a carpenter” – “pushing” the colors onto the paper and demanding almost more than the medium can deliver as he seeks the right chromatic pitch.  With pastels, he relishes this struggle with color and resistance of the media, just as with his block prints he enjoys the muscular physicality of carving.  Accordingly, a workingman’s sensibility informs many of his pieces.  As his journals show, this sense of the artist’s role has brought him to workplaces and domestic environments throughout Mexico, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Cuba:  the documenter and interpreter taking his rightful place among the weavers, launders, farmer, musicians and carpenters he observes so carefully.  As the mural movement ended, a group of painters who called themselves Nueva Presencia – notably Icazas, Cuevas, and Corzas – abandoned the arena of social realism to follow the dark and mysterious painter Goitia, who took the agony of the Mexican revolution as his own pin.  Similarly, Kerson’s long immersion in modern and ancient Meso-America has propelled him beyond the 19th and 20th century socio-political themes to older and more basic concerns, and beyond the visible word to the numinous, shamanic domain underlying it.  One result is a more intimate relationship with subject and medium, and the introspective spring evident throughout Dancing the Equinox Moon. 

Among his most important efforts in this sphere are his explorations of Indio myths and traditional fold tales.  As topics for theater and painting, these satisfy his affinity for robust narratives, for spectacle, for mystery – and, for the artist poised between the devil and death, bear significantly upon the universal interplay of love and pain, life and loss.  In works like “The Miner and his Wife” and “the Devil and the Card Game,” based on folktales from Guanajuato, the stories provide vehicles for explorations of Kerson’s own struggles with issues of family, marriage, loyalty, sexuality and mortality. 

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