Subscribe to Blog via Email
By Elin Spring
“Show me what next year’s champion will look like,” urges R. J. Kern as he prepares to photograph a young handler with his beloved last place competitor at a Minnesota County Fair. Amid the din of crowds and a sea of sawdust, Kern has carved out a little oasis with a simple, romantically lit backdrop, creating a spotlight of recognition for the vulnerable owner. On set and in print, Kern bestows dignity, exalting the ordinary at county fairs in “The Unchosen Ones” and on home fields in “Out To Pasture,” the paired projects that comprise his inspirational solo show at the Griffin Museum of Photography, on view through December 2nd, 2018.
The exhibit features Kern’s immersive, oversized, unglazed portraits taken at county fairs paired with more traditionally-sized, glass-framed pastoral scenes of the same sheep and goats on their home turf. This apparent dichotomy traces its root to the “The Judgment of Nations” parable from Matthew’s Gospel in the New Testament (chapter 25) wherein on Judgment Day, Jesus separates the righteous from the cursed, “as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats…the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left.” Kern used this as a springboard for both an exploration of home, ancestry and place in his project (and book) “The Sheep and the Goats” and in selecting “The Unchosen Ones” for his related portrait project at county fairs. But contrary to Matthew’s parable of judgment, Kern’s is a unifying message of seeking the divinity in all creatures. With our current diet of vitriolic judgments and their mortifying consequences, Kern’s empathy seems almost subversive.
Kern’s message of finding the extraordinary in the commonplace is exemplified by his methodology. The first thing I noticed about his images is that they are drop-dead gorgeous. This is someone who knows how to light as expertly as a commercial photographer, and he openly admires those like Annie Leibovitz who can elevate it into artwork. Like her, his portraits include not only the entirety of his backdrops but enough of the surrounding commotion to confer its genuine, imperfect context. Each frame features an unseen bevy of diffused, flattering lights (always brighter from left to right, ”the way our eyes read”) that appoint a dramatic dynamic range within a limited, soft palette. This effectively creates a Becher-like typology, wherein the details of pose, gesture and facial expression are accentuated. They pull at us magnetically, in empathy and wonder.
In his pastoral photographs, Kern emulates the romantic artistry of traditional landscape paintings, following similar features of line and composition. With the help of a few animal wranglers and a Herculean amount of lighting equipment, Kern’s animals appear mythical, their illumination deific. We see a glorification of the mundane in an exploration of place, with references to both art history and agricultural history contained within each luscious frame. And while there is more variation in the composition of Kern’s landscapes than in his portraits, we are similarly led into seeking behavioral character in his subjects. Although “The Unchosen Ones” and “Out To Pasture” make individually strong statements, the pairing of images creates a whole, embellishing our visual and cultural sense of an agrarian life that is fast disappearing in modern America.
In R. J. Kern’s photographs we get a nuanced and generous view of our rural roots. His aesthetics and technical prowess yield alluring images, drawing us into a philosophical – if not outright emotional – awareness of the inescapable fate of these grazing animals historically closest to us. They are fellow mammals, with character enough to vividly name them, but we also cultivate their milk, hides and meat. The expressions we read on the children’s faces in “The Unchosen Ones” reflects how strongly some of them relate to their livestock. In Kern’s compelling vignettes of this rarified circumstance, we can all identify with the feeling of being “unchosen.” But the dignity that Kern’s empathy bestows delivers a message of hope, at a time when we desperately seek one.
For more information about this exhibit, go to: https://griffinmuseum.org/show/r-j-kern-unchosen-ones-pasture/
To read our book review of “The Sheep and the Goats”, go to: https://whatwillyouremember.com/book-reviews-rj-kern-the-sheep-and-the-goats-clare-benson-the-shepherds-daughter-robin-schwartz-amelia-and-the-animals/