Edgar Jerins’s (b. 1958) exhibition of twelve figurative charcoal drawings, most nearly life-size, reinvents American Regionalism through the lens of present-day anguish. Each monumental work, splayed across a stage-like surface hauntingly lit from imaginary footlights, presents a psychodrama rendered in gray, black and white; metaphoric shadings for characters drawn from the artist’s Omaha, Nebraska family life and East Coast friendships. Jerins’s two severely schizophrenic brothers committed suicide; his youngest brother succumbed to the ravages of drug and alcohol addiction; many of his adult friends grappled with substance abuse, divorce, male identity and alienation issues. Jerins, trained as a classical artist devoted to representations of the human figure, ingeniously transforms this traditional genre into an urgent and timely vehicle for conveying the lives of those straddling the edge of contemporary angst.
“I thought for years about doing something about my family history,” says Jerins, “but it was tough; a challenge I met when I re-visited Omaha to make drawings of family and friends at home.” Christmas Day, Yutan, Nebraska: Norman, Gary, and Johnny (2014) depicts Norman wearing baggy jeans and workman’s boots. He enters the family living room through a porch door to find his young sons—Gary balanced on a trampoline and Johnny seated on the floor—going at one another with toy rifles they received for Christmas. Jerins regales us with all the defining stuff in this family’s life, from overstuffed sofas flanking the doorway and cheap wall-to-wall carpeting, to a lacey throw over a table displaying a decorative candy caddy and candleholder. While the kiddy gun fight most noticeably accounts for the disturbing tone of an otherwise homey narrative, the tension within this large drawing derives from the artist’s classical art practice. It is Jerins’s finesse of classicism’s compositional techniques that upends the center of his cousin Norman’s world.
He positions Norman, standing slightly off center at the apex of a classic triangular composition, framed by vertical wooden doors and windows, a sparse landscape receding in the distance. Artificial lamplight corrupts soft twilight. It creeps within the crevices of Norman’s furrowed brow and slack torso, revealing this otherwise able dad, fraught and caught in the space between his kids’ pointed guns.
Emma and Kiera at Dad’s (2008), a more minimal composition, features Danny, a divorced, functioning alcoholic living in a sparse converted garage apartment, here hosting his day-visiting daughters. Danny, gazing into space, sits between them on the arm edge of a floral chintz-fabric sofa. Fifteen-year-old Kiera, sexily dressed in a slip of a dress, stretches self-consciously along the sofa’s cushions, while ten-year-old Emma, clad in a T-shirt and jeans, leans on a stool beside him looking confused and bored. Father and daughters do not make eye contact, an emotional disconnect that Jerins highlights by isolating each figure in its own lamplight, individual shadows animating otherwise bare garage walls. Jerins’s epic drawing is a wrenching spectacle for many because he positions the viewer as one would observe the scene from the level of orchestra stage lights. The human scale of this theatrical setting exposes life’s every intimate, lived-in detail, effectively sucking you in as an intrusive voyeur eavesdropping on the dark side.
This virtual theater moves outdoors in Dodge Park, North Omaha (2021), the park where Jerins hung out with his teenage friends. “It was flat space where the cops could not sneak up on you,” says Jerins, whose memories play to this work’s theme of young people coming of age. Three figures sit on a park bench opposite a standing older male. He gazes towards the viewer, cigarette dangling between his fingers, his wan face betraying an already hardened life. Jerins renders lush grass, cool water, and variegated twilight so masterfully that one imagines true color; an orchestration of textures animating the thoughts swirling through young minds absorbed in their own reveries. At the same time, the distinction between warm natural light and the artificial glare of streetlamps eerily pulsing through a dense clump of trees, heightens the anxiety lurking in the space between the standing and seated figures, vulnerable youngsters, secure perhaps in their present space, but harboring fears of what their futures may hold.
Jerins’s exhibition at Glen Hansen Studio on Long Island’s East End is part of a yet larger story about what’s happened in the countryside during the COVID pandemic. In 2018, Hansen and his artist friends launched, in the artist’s 18th-century barn studio space, a series of fun pop-up exhibits. What began as good-natured spoofs with titles ranging from The Great American Cheeseball Challenge (2018) to All About Bob (2019), (a homage to the late TV artist Bob Ross) consistently coaxed the tease towards thoughtful conversation. And then, when the pandemic shuttered galleries and studio traffic halted, these finessed curatorial exhibits served as welcome elixirs for the masked denizens of the North Fork. Hansen welcomed artists who live and/or work in New York City or locally, providing precious exhibition time and space for well-acknowledged artists such as Jerins. The creation of this unique and spontaneous alternative space has indeed caught on, a phenomenon that hopefully will continue beyond the pandemic.