MIKE KELLEY

  • MIKE KELLEY

    MIKE KELLEY

    AS AN ART STUDENT, I had seen a few reproductions of works from Paul Thek’s “Technological Reliquaries” series, 1964–67, and was quite taken with them. But it was the catalogue for Thek’s “Processions” exhibition at Philadelphia’s Institute of Contemporary Art in 1977 that really turned my head around and made me rethink my sculptural practice. I was already interested in performative sculpture; the artists Joseph Beuys, Rudolf Schwarzkogler, and Tetsumi Kudo, in particular, interested me because of their embrace of poetic mythmaking and their use of everyday materials. Thek’s

  • David Askevold

    TONY OURSLER

    MY PERSONAL COSMOLOGY of Conceptualism starts with snakes: David Askevold’s Kepler’s Music of the Spheres Played by Six Snakes, 1971–74, to be exact. As a student at CalArts in 1977, a time when the art department was known for its Conceptual slant—in retrospect, this could have been the last gasp of the last American “ism”—I heard Askevold lecture on the work. Even when conveyed only in slides and audio, Kepler’s Music of the Spheres struck me as a stunning installation; it mixes elements of performance, music, and homemade apparatus, featuring suspended live snakes that play a

  • Mike Kelley

    THOUGH GUY DE COINTET was still alive when I moved to Los Angeles in 1976, I never met him, nor did I see any of his theatrical productions until after his death. These works were not performed often, so it’s not so surprising that I missed them even though I was living in the same city. Yet I was a fan of his work based on the little I did come across, like the script for his play Tell Me, 1979, which appeared in an arts journal accompanied by photographs of its recent production. Much of my own performance work at the time was made in response to such written accounts of live events, rather

  • Mike Kelley

    1 “The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult” (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) This exhibition—co-organized by the Met and the Maison Européenne de la Photographie, Paris, where the show was first on view—was a great introduction to those unfamiliar with spiritualist photography, a branch of photographic history that has been neglected until recently. I’m a sucker for ectoplasm, and this show proved that “fake photography” is nothing new. (The show closed on New Year’s Eve 2005, and even got mentioned by one critic here last December, but I’m including it anyway.)

    2 “Hans

  • OBSCURED VISIONS: “EYE INFECTION”

    LATTER-DAY DEFENDERS OF THE ONE TRUE PATH OF MODERNISM may think that they were blindsided, but few real challenges come at you straight on. The one offered by the artists in “Eye Infection,” the five-artist show at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, that closed in January, comes from behind and beside, but we always knew it was there. The long-term threat posed to the conventional wisdom about what makes for a decisive critical art has been rudely explicit in the work of Robert Crumb, Jim Nutt, Peter Saul, and H.C. Westermann since the ’60s and in that of Mike Kelley since the late ’70s. For much of that time these artists may have seemed too far in the distance to worry about, but since the early ’90s they have been creeping up on the motorcade of mainstream painting and sculpture. Now this unruly crew has lurched into the passing lane.
     
    In this instance, credit for signaling them the right-of-way goes to guest curator Christiaan Braun. Braun has mounted an argumentatively eccentric but quintessentially American exhibition at the most staunchly modernist of European institutions, though it should be noted that the Stedelijk is home not only to one of the great collections of “pure” abstraction à la Barnett Newman but also to that inspired carbuncle on the face of the formalist tradition, Ed Kienholz’s The Beanery.
     
    The Ed Ruscha drawing that provided the show’s title wasn’t included in the exhibition, but the phrase epitomizes the sensibility of the five artists who were, and that of the broader tendency they represent: Think Ed Paschke, Paul McCarthy, Tony Oursler, Raymond Pettibon, Jim Shaw, and Jeff Koons. What they share is a fascination with the more unsightly aspects of contemporary life; a robust contempt for rules of the road laid down by magistrates of both the establishment and the avant-garde; a knack for the grotesque that capitalizes on the collision between refined facture and aggressively vulgar imagery (Kelley, the least fastidious maker among them, is the exception here); and a wayward way with words that has fooled much of the public into thinking that what these artists do is just a gag while giving art-world mandarins an excuse for dismissing them as retrograde anti-intellectuals and therefore beneath serious consideration.
     
    There are signs that such condescension is yielding to cautious recognition, and the improbable presence of “Eye Infection” at the Stedelijk is but one of them. Still, much of what these artists do is too unacceptable to garner a full institutional embrace. Even though Donald Judd and Bruce Nauman paid him homage, Westermann remains too “old-fashioned” in his choice of materials and techniques, as well as too perverse in what is nevertheless a formally powerful approach to sculpture, to be appreciated by much of current opinion; the same generally holds true for Nutt. Saul and Crumb are too unapologetic in the offense their work may give, to women and African Americans in particular, to be offered center stage, although, like artists from Robert Colescott to Kara Walker, they have used humor to lance the boil of repressed racial and sexual attitudes which was festering long before any of them appeared on the scene. And while some critics have attempted to co-opt Mike Kelley for fashionable categories such as the “abject” or “l’informe,” the reality is that he is anti everything that would blunt his own resistance to normative aesthetics and draw him into the academic fold. Indeed, while all the artists in “Eye Infection” use language—or their own idiosyncratic lingo—polemically, Kelley is unique in having developed a fully articulated position from which to counter prevailing art-world dogmas of taste, ideology, and class. That is to say, Kelley is almost alone in having demonstrated the full theoretical possibilities of talking back. The following remarks are based on his conversations with Braun and Stedelijk curator Jelle Bouwhuis about his work and that of his four artistic precursors.
     
    Robert Storr

    ARTFORUM: You published an article in these pages in 1989 in which you seem to take the history of the caricature as an introduction to the (then) recent American art. How does the work of artists like H.C. Westermann, Peter Saul, R. Crumb, and Jim Nutt relate to this history and to your work?

    Mike Kelley: In that article I was primarily addressing “postmodern” trends in the art world at that time. My premise was that many artworks at that moment, despite the fact that they, on the surface, made reference to modernist tropes, were exaggerations or parodies of those traditions and, as such, should

  • FOUL PERFECTION: THOUGHTS ON CARICATURE

    THE WORD “CARICATURE” calls to mind the shoddy street-corner portrait, the comic depictions of celebrities that line the walls of bars, the crude political cartoons in the opinion section of the daily newspaper—philistine images, which may provoke indifference or disgust in the educated art-lover. Yet probably in part because of this strong negative reaction, numerous artists have tried to draw caricature into the sphere of fine art. In the hot “Let’s have fun” populism of funk and East Village art and in the “Let’s get serious” populism of agitprop, in the cooler arena of Pop and in the