Don’t Look Back

Photos by Anne Fishbein (top) and Michael Powers

A quarter-century is a long time in Art History, particularly in the last century, when the mass media’s thirst for outrageous antics spurred the natural progression of artistic innovation into a frenzied manifesto-of-the-week orgy of put-ons, purges and messianic posturing. And it was fun while it lasted, but somewhere around the beginning of the 1970s, it began to seem like all of the frontiers of art had been colonized, and there was nowhere left to go but backwards. Much of the art world is still hovering somewhere back there in 1966, feigning surprise at geometric abstraction and outrage at unmade beds claiming to be sculptures.

In 1978, when Detroit expatriate Mike Kelley graduated with an MFA from CalArts, the hot ticket in the art world was the first wave of this reactionary nostalgia — the New Image movement of grandiose, often deliberately ham-fisted neo-expressionist painting and sculpture, a style that remained central during the ’80s art boom. During that decade, Kelley resisted the lure of the East Coast gold rush and steadfastly produced work that undermined this return to the Modernist womb by occupying the high-anxiety in-between areas that had opened in the ’60s. At first, his varied output of paintings, writings, audio, costumes and sculptural objects acted as components of his conceptually rooted performance pieces like Monkey Island and Plato’s Cave, Rothko’s Chapel, Lincoln’s Profile.

Over the next few years, as the performative center diminished, Kelley’s works took the form of installations like the notorious Pay for Your Pleasure — a rainbow-hued corridor of propaganda-scaled portraits depicting artists, poets and philosophers alongside quotes suggesting that madness, criminality and other antisocial tendencies are inextricable from creativity.( At the end of the corridor was an artwork by serial killer John Wayne Gacy and a victims’ rights collection box.) By decade’s end, he had started exploring a peculiar strain of crafty appropriation — fashioning outsized felt banners based on found fliers or near-psychedelic religious iconography, and, most famously, assembling stuffed animals and handmade craft items into various configurations, from the signal “painting” More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid to the sad, droll Lumpenprole — a dozen or so stuffed dolls (presumably) hidden under an enormous zigzag-pattern knitted blanket. This last body of work in particular established Kelley as one of the most important living American artists.

By 1992, the art market had crashed and the art world was eager to scapegoat the previous era’s heroic picture-makers and find a new, less blatantly commodity-driven model to embrace. Kelley’s work fit the bill, and with his signature “pathetic” craft-dolly assemblages he’d hit on the kind of powerful but ambiguous archetype —anthropomorphism-friendly and colorful as all get-out — that can be milked for an entire art career. In January of that year MOCA unveiled Helter Skelter, its epochal survey of contemporary L.A. art, with Kelley as a headliner. But instead of a dose of his now-familiar trademark crochet appropriations, his newfound hype-cranked global audience was met with an austere architectural installation unpoetically titled Mike Kelley’s Proposal for the Decoration of an Island of Conference Rooms (With Copy Room) for an Advertising Agency Designed by Frank Gehry.

The first thing one encountered on entering the Temporary (now Geffen) Contemporary — itself a Gehry-revamped police garage — was Charles Ray’s anomalously endowed Male Mannequin, an out-of-the-gate showstopper that, in tandem with the big pink lady Mannequin Fall ’91 in the back, made Ray famous. The next most obvious work was Chris Burden’s sculpture Medusa’s Head, a dangling 5-ton eco-political cartoon of a planet desiccated by industry, swarming with parasitic mining railway lines like devouring maggots. In the distance you could see Nancy Rubins’ precarious, roof-high cascade of Trailers Drawings and Hot Water Heaters, but before you got anywhere near it, you had to pass through Kelley’s Proposal.

Originally commissioned by Gehry for a scuttled design project, Proposal took a cluster of utterly banal offices — fluorescent white cubes with generic utilitarian furniture, none of which bore any sign of Gehry’s inventiveness — and performed a series of modifications to expose and disrupt their normally invisible ideological structures. Most obviously, he covered the stark white walls with blown-up ephemeral Xerox art (of the “You Want It When?!” school) that normally never breaches the client reception area/worker’s cubicle boundary. Conference rooms, supposed examples of the most refined yet unobtrusive social engineering, designed to optimize the presentation of still more expertly crafted public artworks (ad campaigns), were suddenly branded with vulgar, sexually explicit, anti-authoritarian post-industrial folk art. A vernacular art form that allowed the peasants to blow off steam (and thereby keep the circuits of the infotainment industry greased) was suddenly tattooed across the outermost membrane of commercial culture, and finally represented in a museum as high art.

In addition, Kelley modified a normally hidden space — an otherwise inaccessible copy/storage/lounge room — by installing a large picture window between it and the largest conference room, negating the visually contrived illusion of privacy separating the showroom from the factory floor. These kinds of class reversals and institutional critiques had always been central to Kelley’s work, but in Proposal they were presented in the bleakest of formal languages — overlit off-the-rack office architecture in black, white, gray, silver and plywood, embellished with degraded photocopy-quality fliers designed with default fonts and clip art — the same kind of impoverished palette imposed by the hardcore conceptual milieu from which Kelley had emerged. And provoking the same kind of response: dismay and avoidance.

Kelley’s career already had too much momentum to be derailed by this proactive sabotage of what could have been a warm and fuzzy reign as the King of Yarn Doll Art. I wasn’t as impressed with it at the time as I am in retrospect — I like some sugar with my medicine. But I now realize that if Kelley had persisted with his easily sentimentalized, rainbow-hued craftwork, I would have quickly lost interest — not only for the lack of formal novelty, but most significantly because it would have signaled the exhaustion of the artist’s insurgency, his surrender to a process fueled by nostalgia.

Instead, Mike Kelley has become that rare artist whose work can attain the same levels of intellectual and formal engagement for more than 25 years — witness his most recent show at Patrick Painter: the sprawling, spectacular Black Out that ranks among his strongest works. His current projects include a three-volume anthology of his cranky, hilarious writings edited by John Welchman for MIT Press (Volume 2 is due in February 2004) and the launch of his own Compound Annex record label to distribute his extensive catalog of experimental audio, including the long-awaited three-CD reissue of his proto-punk noise band Destroy All Monsters.

Rather than allowing it to dictate his art, Kelley has turned nostalgia against itself, creating a body of work that explores repressed memory, systems of archival categorization, and the impulse to self-mythologize with seemingly inexhaustible formal inventiveness and a skepticism sorely lacking in most of the swooning, delusional art world. If you have to look back and pick a defining moment from an era, it’s best to pick one that points out the perils of rose-tinted idylls and 20/20 hindsight.


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