“Vern” is a strange and memorable documentary short about the posthumous fame of Vernon Kolski, a New York painter whose art career was marked with commercial disappointment and was eventually derailed due to poor health. In death, Kolski found a new audience. But not for his paintings. Rather, Kolski’s widow gave his ashes to Samuel Yates, a painter in San Francisco who mixed Kolski’s cremated remains into a painting that is now a part of the permanent collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (the painting is simply called “Vern”).
The story of incorporating cremating remains into a painting is intriguing, to be certain, but oddly “Vern” seems to have much of its focus in the wrong place. A great deal of the running time is devoted to recalling the life and death of Kolski (his widow, brother, and playwright Israel Horovitz speak about the man in reverential tones), but the true story here is Samuel Yates, who came up with the bizarre notion of mixing paint and human ash. Yates is an elusive figure here (his career is encapsulated in a quick series of snapshots) and it would fascinating to know about his career and what inspired him to create such a weird work.
Another problem is that “Vern” is padded with a lot of artsy touches that get annoying: irrelevant stock footage of 1950s New York (where the Kolskis met and first lived), a cutesy switching between color and monochrome, ditzy modern folk songs that fill the soundtrack for no clear reason, and a tape that is supposedly part of Kolski’s 1979 therapy session that is conspicuously absent of his voice. “Vern” might have worked better at half of the running time: straight and succinct without the irrelevant embellishments.
And yet, the story of how this weird painting came about is so remarkable that one can easily overlook the film’s flaws and get caught up in the bizarre post-life career of Kolski. When the finished painting is finally hung on a gallery wall (it looks like a mass of lumpy cereal spread across a canvas), a cascade of emotions bubbles up within the viewer’s mind. And when Israel Horovitz openly questions the finished result, it provides a mature counterbalance to the effusive praise which the other on-camera interviewees have heaped on what is clearly a triumph of artistic bad taste.