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Richard Kern is smarter than the average pornographer. What other shutterbug for Penthouse and Juggs also makes videos for Sonic Youth and Marilyn Manson and exhibits his shots of naked friends in high-toned galleries? But these artfully artless photos mark a new breakthrough for Kern. Best known for very hard-edged pictures and films--his DVD retrospective is entitled The Hard Core Collection--he now shows us a far softer side, which turns out to be even more unsettlingly transgressive than his violent stuff. The Soft photos are like a collaboration between himself and his punky young subjects, flirtily flaunting themselves in various states of come-hither undress. It's an art that conceals art: his skill in lighting, framing and staging his scenes coyly hides behind an unretouched do-it-yourself look, making the steamy scenes resemble what might happen if the amateur goth exhibitionists of the Suicidegirls website had all gone to art school. The girls loll and puff bong smoke into the ripe O of each others' mouths, blankly display nosebleeds, "accidentally" flash their panties, mockingly parody archetypes from Cindy Sherman, soft-core porn, and notorious candid tabloid "gotcha" snaps of celebrities: Catherine Zeta-Jones pregnant and smoking, Uma Thurman caught topless emerging from the surf. They play their parts with gleeful aplomb, in a fun, smutty (but not too smutty) conversation with the photographer. Institute of Contemporary Art curator Matthew Higgs supplies Artforum-style insights in his scholarly essay, but this is one book most folks won't read for the articles. --Tim Appelo
Beyond traditional portraiture, Richard Kern's new works manifest a strong eroticism while incorporating the cinematic power of his earlier "Transgression" theme. His recent photographs with saturated color and stark, atmospheric lighting accentuate his pretty-but-not-perfect young nudes. Inspired, unique, and "real," his approach is as daring as ever in Soft. Still sticking with the "no airbrush" motto, Kern's unpretentious, honest photos draw the viewer in close. Kern's longstanding relationship with the "No-wave" scene, which incorporated music, performance, feminist art, and the punk lifestyle, is reflected and distilled in these photographs.