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, replete with a ballerina on its distended belly. In Silent Myth (pictured), a white horse stands commandingly as its nude female rider extends her wings. Precisely rendered in pale resin that evokes white marble, it 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 hermitic lifestyle and aversion to exhibiting his work has made him this city's most accomplished obscure 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 photographs of Kern's work, a chance encounter that led to this 40-year retrospective encompassing the entire fifth floor of the Ogden Museum of Southern Art.
It is unclear why Kern, 84, has been so shy about exhibiting. As a New Orleans native with a flair for fantastical creations, he should be a natural fit for this surreal, carnivalesque city, but tone may be a factor. While his sculptural vision has parallels with Louise Bourgeois, Rene Magritte and our own Eugenie "Ersy" Schwartz, his coolly cerebral outlook also harks to literary visionaries such as Jorge Luis Borges and Franz Kafka. Even fantastical pieces like Abduction of the Queen — in which 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.