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Matthew Kern

It's not easy to be of delicate constitution, complex surface, and enigmatic message and yet coexist, if not even sublimate, the raw, insistent rectangles of brick and sandblasted mortar walls of Gallery Imperato. Never mind. Matthew Kern's manipulated and assembled Polaroids gently manage their imperious milieu, fighting order with order, geometry with geometry.

Mathematical game boards or windowpanes to poetic views, the expanded grid structure of each of the works echoes the ratio of the Polaroid SX-70's legendary three-inch-square and bordered countenance. Using only this primary element, Kern directs his attentions outward into the world, capturing its vagaries in the multitudes of shots from his own vintage camera. In his studio the malleable surfaces of the photographs subsequently undergo journalistic intervention via Kern's notations and scribbles, sometimes scratched faintly into their backs as they aggregate on behalf of a narrative.

The individual shots themselves are hasty, unselfconscious, unassuming in the typical manner of this now extinct, once ubiquitous camera. But gathered into summary sets they explain oblique proceedings or record discordant memories and sensations. You might take them for a compilation of statements by witnesses with slightly differing perspectives or as a visual algorithm for calculating the many component truths in any occurrence.

Kern's themes are often essentially simple and personal: a dying deer encountered along the side of the road, a holiday memory, returning to a rural home, growing old. Occasionally they extend to the contemplation of Eastern ideals or political commentary.

It is an artist's job to experiment within their own self-imposed formats. That means that not everything will be as conclusive and successful as everything else. Sometimes such works are held back from exhibition, while other times they function to provide range and discrepancy. The works in this exhibit demonstrate the intrepid undertaking of inclusion. Many, such as "Return to Bethel," "Glimpse of Time Travel," "The Start of a Letter," "Halo Test," "Barely Anything," and most especially "A Forthewere Tree," are stunningly successful for their intricate, ruthless ambiguity or modest restraint of purpose. As riddles they trap their viewer in their seductive folds as if they were indeterminate fragrance. A few others, including "India," "Smell of Grass," and "Lucky Day," are simply too didactic and suffer from the explicit literary elements crayoned across their face.

Matthew Kern is, however, a self-taught artist. If there is one particular tendency that self-taught artists incline toward, it is a compulsion to apply statements to decorate their iconography--or possibly even exorcise it of any unintended demons. As the work moves nearer to conceptual freedom and clarity through enigma, explanations cease to be as necessary to narrow, deface, or cloak the mysteries in the image. Unless the subject is a word, that is, as it is in Kern's sublime newspaper-excerpted/-concocted "Forthewere"--which, in addition to giving the viewer a curious word to penetrate, also provides a series of empty boxes, ostensibly to fill with questions.

 

Reprinted from The Baltimore City Paper