James Kerr’s exhibition Blooms has a distinct sensibility, it is based in minimalism and conceptualism but is tempered by a softness and romanticism that is Kerr’s own. In this exhibition Kerr continues his exploration of the culture of flowers, in particular roses. Kerr’s roses are lifted from this culture and are a little hesitant and doubtful. Salvador Dali once said, “The first man to compare the cheeks of a young woman to a rose was obviously a poet; the first to repeat it was possibly an idiot”. What characterises Kerr’s work and what makes it contemporary, is that he equivocates between the Romantic and the iconoclastic, between the celebration of the expansive culture of the rose and it’s declassing. The rose is obviously one of the classic tropes of Western art and literature but Kerr adeptly repositions our expectations of the rose.
The bold disavowal of avant-garde modernism (as represented by Dali) is no longer so simple and in Kerr’s work we see a return to the possibilities of beauty and romance (while at the same time questioning them). Indeed is Dali a little wrong, it is exactly this constant repetition of courtly tropes that connects the rose to so many millions of gestures of love over the centuries; in contemporary art too we do not believe so fully in the original gesture of genius. Kerr’s work works on many valences and represents, as good contemporary art does an elision of historical and cultural possibilities from the pre-modern to the modern to the postmodern.
All the works in this exhibition exhibit Kerr’s usual taste and elegance of form. Kerr works in the contemporary mode of post-minimalism and post-conceptualism that we see especially in the work currently coming out of New York. This stylistic form too holds a certain oscillating power between the strictness of high modern conceptualism and a return to a more literary and romantic mode. As a reader of these images you are constantly asked to question whether Kerr is in earnest or not.
In the ‘Bloom’ works the viewer is presented with crushed and distressed images lifted from an encyclopaedia of Roses. On the one hand Kerr is questioning the rose industry with its obsessive and almost neurotic number of grafts and “sports” that has moved the Rose from courtly love to big Romantic business. One can see how the crushing and opening of the image speaks to pollination and therefore creates a sexual charge within the works. It is iconoclastic as it destroys the image while it presents it although in a conceptual twist the images are the result of gestures that attempt to mirror the spreading of petals for reproduction. On the other hand the act of erasure creates the cracks that are Romantic in themselves. They soften the image, giving them a beautiful soft light and the lines seem like craquelure on old Renaissance paintings, which are very difficult to forge. In ‘Hybrid Bed’ the patinated paper too links the old to the now, the softness that age and life brings to paper is animated again through a minimalist and conceptual nod to the visual language of hybridising charts and graphs.
The encyclopaedia of named roses is a wonderful way of celebrating people’s fame which some think was started by Napoleon’s Josephine herself. Eleanor Roosevelt though saw the double sides of high seriousness and farce, as Kerr does too when she said, “I once had a rose named after me and I was very flattered. But I was not pleased to read the description in the catalogue: no good in a bed, but fine up against a wall.” ‘Words Get The Best of Me’ also hesitates between the obviously loving and touching poetry of the rose grafter. We almost will ourselves to share in some of his poetry and belief while also looking back at ourselves through the mirrored surface. As the perfume from cheap thrift shop incense waft through the room, the audience is held together by the common knowledge and love for the rose.