Inventions and Distortions

Rider University showcases artist James Kearns in a 50-plus years retrospective.

By: Susan Van Dongen
   Being born in the industrial town of Scranton, Pa., during the Depression did not bode well for a young man interested in art. Painter and sculptor James Kearns says there wasn’t much art around, and boys were discouraged from formal studies.
   "In those days, boys didn’t take art classes — girls did," Mr. Kearns says. "You went to high school and went into the drafting department if you were a male. So I was on my own. But I was attracted to art and I was always drawing. I also took shop — so it was hands-on stuff that served me well, especially with my sculpture."
   Mr. Kearns’ creative urge was too strong to be stopped, however. Fueled by his love for drawing and the local library’s impressive collection of art books, painting and sculpture seemed to flow naturally through his hands, even in his youth. It has continued to do so for more than 50 years.
   Rider University Art Gallery in Lawrence is celebrating Mr. Kearns’ body of work with the exhibit James Kearns: Continuities: Fifty-Plus Years, on view through Feb. 23. In addition, the artist, who lives in Dover, will give a gallery talk Feb. 2.
   Now in his 80s, Mr. Kearns reflects on the personal and social circumstances that helped shape his career and approach to art. His family was plunged into the Depression when he was just 6 years old, a state of affairs that had a subtle but definite effect well into his teen years.
   "I didn’t have any terrible experiences, I just absorbed an attitude for the world," Mr. Kearns says. "You found out later what kind of a traumatic experience it was. But that’s when I became interested in art. There was a lot of painting that really spoke to me — Social Realism, for example."
   Artists such as Ben Shahn, with his works that portrayed ordinary people, particularly resonated with Mr. Kearns.
   "He showed downtrodden, working people," he says. "His realism had a gritty social content to it that I found appealing. But that was one aspect of (my influences). There were also the Mexican muralists and the modernists. I was emerging into a larger consciousness and really absorbing everything I could get my hands on."
   Like many from his generation, Mr. Kearns joined the armed forces during World War II then took advantage of educational opportunities through the G.I. Bill, studying at the Art Institute of Chicago.
   "It was a good time," he says in an interview with Rider Gallery Director Harry Naar. "Veterans from all services were there as well as very serious students. I also had the impression that the school faculty was in transition from older attitudes to younger instructors who were imbued with the modern. That mix was unique and very special. In fact, I thought it was a pretty rare moment to experience the older and the new."
   His paintings, which have grown more and more colorful throughout the years, often have central figures with a certain surreal, magical essence and are drawn with superb detail.
   For example, "Memorial" — with its bright pallet, collection of objects and figure with its face obscured — brings to mind pieces by Salvador Dalí or Max Ernst. Mr. Kearns is surprised, however, to be included with this genre.
   "Another interesting thing to me is that people will often see my invented figures as reminders of people and types they have seen or known, and not just as motifs for making art," he says in the interview with Mr. Naar. "I employ heightening, exaggeration and distortion from visual norms to get a more vivid, dramatic statement."
   He was inspired to create "Memorial" from observing the personal memorials people make at various sites, such as where a loved one has been killed in a car accident.
   "You’ll see a grouping of things, objects, crosses, flowers and so on," Mr. Kearns says. "I started playing with that idea and then I elaborated on it."
   One would think that the years of drafting contribute to the graphic quality of Mr. Kearns’ work, but he says it’s just his passion for drawing.
   "Everything is predicated on drawing," he says. "I dedicated a lot of time to sharpening my drawing skills and basically, I just like to draw. When I became interested in art, one of the dominant ways you developed educationally was with figure drawings. I discovered that I had a knack for it, and emphasized it (in my work). My basic instinct is (toward) the human figure, it gives me opportunity to explore ideas that way.
   "I still enjoy it," he continues. "In fact, I still meet with people, we hire a model and draw. It’s always a pleasure to exercise your skills in this way."
   He says the human figure is "a window on the world" for him and that "things human" refer to "the human condition, the human spectacle, the human comedy, mystery, call it what you will," Mr. Kearns says. "More precisely, it’s about the attitudes, emotions and speculations that these generalizations engender that make the kind of sense I can embody in form."
   Mr. Kearns’ figures seem to always be in motion. There’s a lot of movement in his work, people in transition or the wind blowing through things in the background.
   "People move — that’s a metaphor for the figure in its details," he says. "Movement is a big thing to me. My figures, even when they’re sitting still, give the impression that they could move if they wanted."
   An outstanding modern American sculptor, painter and printmaker, Mr. Kearns studied at the Art Institute of Chicago, DePaul University and at the University of Chicago from 1946 to 1951. His first one-man exhibition took place in New York in 1956 and since that time his sculptures, paintings, lithographs and etchings have been shown at the National Institute of Arts and Letters, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and the Whitney Museum in New York. Museums that have purchased his art include the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.
   Mr. Kearns names diverse influences including Picasso, Rodin, Pierre Bonnard, Thomas Hart Benton, Edward Hopper, Lucien Freud and the Mexican muralists — Diego Rivera, Jose Orozco and David Siguerios.
   Since the early ’60s, Mr. Kearns has taught at the School of Visual Arts in New York and later at the Skowhegan School of Painting in Maine. He says that teaching has helped him communicate better as a visual artist.
   "When you’re making art you’re usually working in a studio by yourself," Mr. Kearns says. "You get tired with ‘conversation’ just with yourself, so you have exhibitions, you participate in group shows and what not. But with teaching, you have a class with a number of people staring at you and you have to come up with something.
   "Before I got into teaching, I could do a lot of things as an artist, but I couldn’t explain what I was doing, I couldn’t put it into words," he continues. "My drawing had become part of an internalized motor skill, like driving. When you drive a car you don’t stop and think about what you’re doing. Same with drawing — you depend on this spontaneity."
   Through teaching, however, Mr. Kearns was forced to think through his ideas so he could communicate effectively with his students. He found that he was able to put his internalized skills into words.
   "Teaching has to put a great deal of (an artist’s skills) into words, methodologies and lesson plans and that takes doing," he says. "I’m sure this had a definite effect on me."
James Kearns: Continuities: Fifty-Plus Years is on view at Rider University Art Gallery, Bart Luedeke Center, 2083 Lawrenceville Road, Lawrence, through Feb. 23. Mr. Kearns will give a gallery talk Feb. 2, 7 p.m. Gallery hours: Tues.-Thurs. 11 a.m.-7 p.m., Sun. noon-4 p.m. For information, call (609) 895-5588. On the Web: