The exhibit seems to generate its own silence, and it is deafening. Dazed visitors shuffle about looking disoriented and maintaining a safe distance from the bloated legless horse carcass on the floor. Some look away only to see it replicated in miniature as a wall sculpture, Dancing on Trigger, where a ballerina dances on its distended belly. In Silent Myth, top, a white horse stands commandingly as its nude female rider extends her wings. Precisely rendered in pale resin that evokes white marble, it eloquently suggests a seamless transition from classical mythology to science fiction. Such is the world of Arthur Kern, a prolific sculptor and former Tulane University art instructor whose hermetic lifestyle and aversion to exhibiting his work has made him this city's most staggeringly accomplished little known artist. His retirement in 1996 allowed him to pursue his vision with few interruptions, and he might have remained invisible if not for novelist John Berendt, author of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, who curated this show after seeing some photographs of his work, a chance encounter that led to this 40 year retrospective encompassing the entire fifth floor of the Ogden Museum.
It is unclear why Kern (self portrait, left), now 84, has been so shy about exhibiting. As a New Orleans native with a flair for fantastical creations, he's a natural fit for this surreal, carnivalesque city where all things seem to float in multiple buoyant layers, but tone may be a factor. While his sculptural vision has parallels with Louise Bourgeois, Rene Magritte and our own Ersy Schwartz, his coolly cerebral outlook also harks to literary visionaries such as Jorge Luis Borges or Franz Kafka. Even fantastical pieces like Abduction of the Queen, above--where two short, paunchy male nudes carry a seemingly lifeless female over their heads like trolls on a caravan to never-never land--can seem remarkably matter of fact. Startlingly otherworldly, they linger in the mind like dreams, impressions forever relegated to the shadow realms where the familiar meets the unfathomable. ~Bookhardt / The Surreal Work of a Reclusive Sculptor: An Arthur Kern Retrospective, Through July 17, Ogden Museum of Southern Art, 925 Camp St., 539-9600.
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