Jesse Lerner

Portrait | About | C.O.L.A. Project | Past Projects

The singularity of Jesse Lerner’s work stems from his enviable ability to blend multiple strategies, including intellectual and media history, archival research, film and photographic curatorial practice, polyphonic documentary, found footage, and experimental filmmaking. By means of a cartography that exceeds postcolonial modernity’s geographic-territorial determinations and through a refined mode of attention toward the entanglements of colonialist and nationalist historiographies, Lerner’s work takes the form of a passionate and patient interdisciplinary archaeology of the aesthetics and politics of the historical avant-garde(s) and of contemporary media arts in the Americas, specifically in Mexico and the United States. Described by film historian David James as a “vital component” of the avant-garde film scene in Los Angeles, Lerner is also actively involved in watershed collaborations with key Mexican intellectual figures.

Lerner trained in the fields of cultural studies, visual anthropology, and nonfiction and experimental film history. Straddling the humanities, social sciences, and avant-garde media arts, his film work, curatorial work, and scholarly work track, diagnose, and reassemble contemporary transcultural movements across the rich interface between cosmopolitan modernisms and the experimentalist cultural productions of “peripheral” or “alternative” modernities. His montages and collages weave together moving images, photographs, ethnographic objects, newsreels, archaeological artifacts, futurist manifestos, and essayistic fragments.

Lerner is always on the lookout for intensive sites of experimental cultural activity, in both small provincial towns and cosmopolitan cultural capitals, from Mexico City to Xalapa, from Mérida and Tijuana to Los Angeles and New York. His work connects nodal points that condense, displace, revise, and contest the historical and geopolitical tropes of center and periphery, north and south, indeed the very modernist trope of copy and original. He is an indefatigable searcher of objets trouvés and found-footage evidence of the “shock of modernity” (the title of his 2007 exhibition on criminal photography in Mexico City). He takes delight in underscoring the affinity between the fakeness of documentary filmmaking and the practice of forging archaeological artifacts, complicating in the process the dialectic of cultural authenticity and internationalism characteristic of the historical avant-garde in Latin America.

In the tradition of found-footage filmmakers such as Bruce Conner and Emilio De Antonio, Lerner’s work mines the interface between visual culture and historiography. His fascinating recent experimental films, Magnavoz and TSH, convulsive cine-meditations on the Dada-inspired and futurist group Los Estridentistas, create a tense coexistence of two modes of imagining the past, present, and futures of cosmopolitan modernism in the context of what Mexican public intellectual Roger Bartra has recently called “the post-Mexican condition.”

In his C.O.L.A. project, a feature-length film essay on the intersections between cold war politics and the rise of New York school abstract expressionism, Lerner turns his diagnostic gaze back to the United States. He again sets in motion his signature research and montage strategy to probe the interplay of art and politics and reveal the deeply intertwined nature of diplomacy, touring modern art exhibitions, international realpolitik, and the ideological binary conceptions of allegedly incommensurable forms of selfhood in the United States and oppressive collective dreamworlds in the Soviet Union that have defined the official historiographic frameworks and global reach of American high modernist art.
— Tarek Elhaik