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Digging the Dirt 

Mike Kelley, relentlessly

Wednesday, May 15 2002

Thankfully, unlike the work of many conceptual artists whose ostensible disdain for the strictures of conventional Modernist formalism are a transparent gambit to divert attention from their lack of talent, Kelley‘s work, even at its most austere, is as visually exciting as it is intellectually inventive. The rainbow and grayscale swastika-arm walkways are bracketed by two roughly tinted large-scale photographs -- one of the original John Glenn statue in the high school library and the other a redwood chain-saw carving of Bigfoot -- that adjoin a matching set of imposing institutional display units. These black, solemn upright monoliths each house a series of sliding vertical panels, which the viewer may explore at will. Each panel contains photographic reproductions of newspaper articles culled from the (Detroit suburban) Wayne Westland Eagle from 1968 to 1972, detailing beauty pageants, craft shows, parades, circus performances, art exhibits, rock shows and counterculture activities that fomented Kelley’s artistic world-view. Each clipping is repeated in three different monochromes, and the result, after only a few minutes of archival research, is dizzying. By the time you come across the portrait of the artist as a young man receiving some kind of Chamber of Commerce art prize, you‘re startled by the sudden objectivity of the personality in which you’ve been immersed. The peripheral work in the big gallery is also documentary photography -- a series of unremarkable frontal images of various locales of note from Kelley‘s youth, two large images of the broken crockery in situ, and two panoramic views distorted by mysterious mechanical failures -- a former professor’s garden overlaid with meshlike energy waves, and a sequence of shots along the riverbank that are blacked out entirely except for small bands of scenery.

On some level, it seems like Kelley has burrowed so deeply into the construction of his own personality that he has undermined the very idea of individuality on which it‘s predicated -- like a termite devouring the foundation of its own house. And some of the work here smacks distinctly of the transpersonal realm -- not the least being the John Glenn system and the two large photographs documenting the artist’s search for the elusive Land-o-Lakes Indian maiden (she of the legendary titty-knees) on Peche Island. But the most undiluted mythological dallying in this show comes in the form of lingam-yoni vessels made from mud and debris of seven separate Detroit River islands. The lingam-yoni is a sacred tantric object consisting of a basin with a pillar set in its center (representing Shiva and Parvati in constant creative union), which is ritually anointed with ghee, milk and flower petals. The progressive awakening of the seven chakras fueled by this and -- ahem -- other ritual activities is a myth of vertical ascension strongly analogous to the American space program. Kelley‘s seven restrained sculptures, clustered in the small east gallery behind the front desk, provide an unexpectedly stable anchor that balances the giddiness of the Glenn vortex. It’s also worth noting how the inclusion of ketchup packages, film rolls and dirty syringes in the material of these works fails to have the same sociopolitical implications it would deliver in defiling some Western fetish.

This isn‘t the only political reading the work supports. There are undertones to the emergence of an oversize white techno-warrior from the brown muck underfoot of which no ’60s native of racially polarized Detroit could be unaware. The conflation of the Land-o-Lakes maiden with Bigfoot (her photos mimic the famous 16mm frames shot by Roger Patterson in 1967, which allegedly show a female of the species) equates the feminine counterpart of ubermensch Glenn with a cartoonish crypto-zoological exoticism, which isn‘t far off the mark. Kelley’s continued obsession with the phenomenon of recovered memory references the site of one of the most highly charged social issues of contemporary American society -- the schizoid sexualization and denial of genuine sexual identities to children, which results in bizarre collective expressions like the McMartin daycare scandal and the Whitley Streiber school of UFOlogy.

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Mike Kelley‘s position as a major player in the L.A. art world isn’t as stable as it might seem. Many people express impatience with his relentless taboo breaking, and find his predilection for scatological and other non-vanilla flavors extremely distasteful. The work‘s high verbal and philosophical content, and the ambivalence with which it is presented, discomfit still more viewers. Most of the art world has given up on the idea that art is going anywhere, in any historical sense. Rather than expecting art to expand our understanding of the world, most are content for it to function as inert monetary units subsumed by the philosophy of the universal service sector. Hell, maybe they’re right. But if art does have anything left to offer us, it isn‘t going to come from submissively scaled knockoffs of 40-year-old color-field paintings, but from artists like Kelley, who will look at what the rest of us won’t, and include it in ambitious and surprising works that, for all their plausible deniability, testify to the inextinguishable revolutionary power of the creative act. Right on!

  • Mike Kelley, relentlessly

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