PRINT Summer 1991


IT IS A CURATORIAL TRUISM that, nearly anything in a vitrine looks good enough to hold one's gaze for a minute or two. A cigarette butt, a ballpoint pen, a crumpled piece of paper becomes a fascinating artifact under the aegis of exhibition. Stripped of all common faults, elevated to a position that commands esthetic attention, it becomes exemplary, its grime or banality transformed into testimony to its stunning ordinariness. Vitrines, then, are redeeming contexts, and it says something about how we now fit art into the world around it—about our division of the world into esthetically sacred and profane places, to borrow a distinction from Mircea Eliade—that the vitrine has become the model for the gallery. For inasmuch as the gleaming white cubes of SoHo or Cologne or Los Angeles are simply vitrines writ large, they, too, are redeeming contexts.

Art is made around this fact with surprising frequency, because artists have long since learned to manipulate or parody the art world’s power to exalt unworthy objects: one thinks of arte povera and assemblage, of Joseph Beuys’ fat and felt, of Jeff Koons’ or Haim Steinbach’s commodities. Of course, many of those works are critical in intent. But the artists who make them are pragmatists; the points their pieces make get their force by borrowing or redirecting the legitimizing practices of art and its various institutions, not by opposing them outright. And even when an extreme antiart stance is adopted, as with Marcel Duchamp or Dada, the sense of violation doesn’t last long: the art world is so effective at assimilating and taming the profane that the true poverty of objects outside art has to be constantly reaffirmed, or else it will be left entirely unspoken.

So much of life disappoints, troubles, comes out wrong; we all know that. Nor is it news that our failures are suppressed. The means for redeeming the natural wretchedness of things are legion: there is nostalgia, sentimentality, and romanticization, and the gross and omnivorous acts of comforting rehabilitation at which we’ve become so adept, the kind of psychic tailoring that neatens ragged edges. We are familiar with them all. To decry the censoriousness or sterility of modern life is one of the more obligatory stances of Modernism. But the mechanism for denying those failures by transforming them into successes—the economy, as it were, of redemption—is still a powerful thing, and objects are among its more stable forms of currency. Mike Kelley’s project, unlike that of his conceptualist peers, is precisely to make and display things that, through an inherent profanity, remain unredeemed and unredeemable, that refuse the forces which would save them.

That would, in itself, be a minor feat—“épater la bourgeoisie” is a foolish reason to do anything these days—but Kelley is not merely out to shock. His targets are as varied and complex as the disorders of an analysand, and his work, for all its surface sloppiness, is in fact quite precise in its attack. The office cartoons, done in several series from 1984 on, for example, are representations of the insufferably coy. The various pieces with heavy metal themes are comedies of low-rent hubris (one of the funniest, from a 1990 series of limited-edition scarves, consists of a screaming devil’s head printed above a gothic-scripted MIKË KËLLËY). The “75 Garbage Drawings and 1 Bush,” 1988, seem to be almost literal pictures of surplus psychic energy, a spillage, a sedimental coating that can’t he cleaned off. Other works are nearly unclassifiable, absurd scatological cartoons and defaced prints that say more about the artist’s deliberate lack of discrimination than about their ostensible subject.

Kelley’s performances—his ruminations on The Sublime, 1984; the Reflections on a Can of Vernors, 1981 (“Why is he winking?” Kelley plaintively asked of the figure on a soda can. “It screws up the symmetry”); and the rambling monologue of Plato’s Cave, Rothko’s Chapel, Lincoln’s Profile, 1986 (which included a mock elegiac revery on the last doughnut on a plate at the end of a party)—have had much the same impetus; they were attempts to dramatize visions of failure, inadequacy, or stupidity. Lately the artist has scaled back his excursions into theater, because, he says, they took too long to prepare, and because of his own stage fright. But it’s just as well: theater is particularly friendly to the profanation of its space. The powers that allow it to render events exemplary are, in fact, relatively easily broken down, and have been at least as far back as Aristophanes, perhaps just because the presence of the human body always suggests the possibility of mockery. It is easier, then, to stage abjection than it is to draw it; so the profanation of art is a more demanding task, and one less often attempted.

The economy of redemption in art’s sphere of things, rather than theater’s sphere of events, starts as early as earliest childhood, with the object lessons adults give to their offspring. As if to mimic the compass of that transformation, so does Kelley, with his shabby stuffed animals and soiled blankets, found objects foraged from local thrift stores and presented in low-comic tableaux. Kelley implies that the parents who bestowed the things on their charges had some oversweet impulse in mind, some pandering desire to please their children by presenting them with an idealized version of themselves: they are, as it were, baby statues, from which children are supposed to learn that the world is bright, secure, and friendly, and that the fact of the human body is manageable. Never mind that it isn’t always true—or that the gifts might entail, consciously or no, a lifelong debt of filial gratitude. (One particular work, a piece of canvas covered with afghans and stuffed toys, is called More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid, 1987. The idea is, of course, terrifying.)

The animals, then, are sentimental objects used as a kind of ransom. But they are made for very unsentimental people, and the irony is that children have their own agendas, their own version of life to superimpose on the dolls, and that they incontestably win. For the toys are above all used, unavoidably so; they bear the marks of the little hands that held them, the wear of grubby grasps, of sweat and spit, indelible traces so visceral and so real that no context could direct our attention away from them. So their purpose is upended: the toys do not redeem the children, the children transform the toys into their own unexalted image. And if our first reaction to their display is one of discomfort, that implies a relationship to our own childhoods that is quite clearly the worse for us.

The little parades and scenarios that the toys enact—examining each other like children playing doctor, arranged to form furry genitalia, or in positions suggesting homuncular sex—are sometimes little match for the sheer, strange presence of the dolls themselves, their irreducible tawdriness. Where the poverty of the found elements in a more classical assemblage would, with a few deliberate exceptions, tend to vanish under the assumption that, whatever it was once, it is Art now, the sheer degradation of Kelley’s toys can make their poses somewhat difficult to attend to after the laughter passes. But the effect of Kelley’s work doesn’t come simply from its being more povera than most arte, and as if to demonstrate as much he has recently become more analytic, though no less critical. A show last year in Los Angeles featured his series “Empathy Displacement: Humanoid Morphology (2nd & 3rd Remove).” a sort of half-serious typology of various dolls, hidden in small black coffins to discourage the misdirected pleasure the title describes, behind which loom large drawings of the same. Keyed to these are the obliquely relevant objects—an anonymous murder victim, a grotesquely dissociated human toe, and so on—in “Center and Peripheries,” a series of wall-mounted flowcharts. And at times he has simply dumped multicolored yarn onto secondhand blankets, creating what are at once parodic homages to Jackson Pollock and elemental morphologues of the abject.

But the idea of using objects to make us feel better about ourselves is not restricted to our relationships with children—nor, of course, is its inevitable failure. Art also saves its objects and the people who consume them by insisting on its own special moral force—either claiming for itself a value outside of ethics or, Keats style, equating the beautiful with the good. Consider, then, Kelley’s 1988 installation at the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago. In it, some 43 banners borrow quotes from famous figures of the past to proclaim the supposed connection between the artist and the outlaw; they are proud rejections of mere morality, painted onto cloth, and were displayed in a hallway like so much intellectual bunting. The passages ranged from Jean Genet’s “I want to sing murder, for I love murderers” to Pope Paul III’s claim that artists like Benvenuto Cellini “ought not to be bound by law.” The banners led, from two directions, to a small display case, within which was exhibited a small canvas painted by John Wayne Gacy, a self-portrait-as-clown of the most revoltingly banal sort, done in prison as a form of rehabilitation therapy by a man who abused and then murdered 33 young boys in the Chicago area. The figure wears a pin that says, “I’m Pogo the clown:” it is a classic, if perhaps inadvertent variation on the evil-clown figure from countless horror movies. Pay for Your Pleasure, the piece is called, a reference both to Gacy’s incarceration and to the collection boxes for Illinois victims’ rights organizations that Kelley placed before the entranceway to the exhibition.

The effect is to confuse the moral space that art traditionally clears for itself, to demonstrate its necessary ambivalence over and against the various moralities it claims. Nothing is rehabilitated by the clown painting, or by the authoritative quotes—not Gacy himself, not violence, not art’s special moral place. In Kelley’s hands the platitudes of art as a self-justifying form of cultural violence become sickeningly glib little attempts to cover up what is, in fact, a terribly complicated and failure-ridden process, a system of cultural and psychological maneuvers that, outside the neat confines of the art world, is constantly coming unraveled, turning into something sad and almost unbearably stupid. The idea of art as social therapy and the old-time image of the artist as social outlaw are flip sides of the same form of sentiment.

Sentiment’s awful logic causes art history, too, to repeat itself—first as esthetic adventure, then as kitsch. Children paint Pollocks in nursery school, remake Pablo Picasso’s collages and Alexander Calder’s mobiles; Henri Matisse’s cutouts have become the forms of upbeat banners, invitations to sunny Catholic faith by one Sister Mary Corita, whose pieces enjoyed a sort of official church vogue in the mid ’60s, and who represents a specifically religious form of bland redemption that makes her the archetype of a Kelley target. Kelley’s versions of the same banners, made a year earlier than Pay for Your Pleasure, are two steps removed from the original styles, and somewhat different in tone: the third repetition of art history is as pure abjection. “PANTS SHITTER & PROUD,” says one otherwise friendly-looking felt hanging called 3-Point Program/4 Eyes. “P.S. JERK-OFF TOO,” it goes on, and then, to press the point to total black comedy, a smaller legend at the bottom adds “(AND I WEAR GLASSES).” “I AM USELESS TO THE CULTURE BUT GOD LOVES ME . . . ,” says another. Wishful thinking: Kelley calls the piece Trash Picker.

The title, with its intimations of debasement, might just as well refer to Kelly himself. Any medium will serve him: characterless line drawings, piles of yarn, melted candles, as if the artist’s work itself ought not to be redeemed by anything as neat as a signature material. The stuff—as opposed to the sense—of Kelley’s work is enormously unpredictable from one show to the next, a fact that makes the standard career epiphenomena (retrospectives, art-world classifications, summary essays like this one) inordinately difficult to organize. So the fact that there is such a thing as a recognizable Mike Kelley piece says as much about his strategy as about his style. In conversation he has spoken of wanting to make artifacts with their failures built in, and the failure is two-fold: first, the failure of art, or culture in general, to maintain the standards that it proclaims; and by implication, the failure of Kelley’s works themselves, the sense in which they are so contingent, so reflective of our everyday failures. Kelley, then, makes a lot of garbage, or at least representations thereof; it seems to be a sort of theme, the trash left over when all attempts to elevate have failed, the detritus and muck that someone always has to clear away, either literally or figuratively, in order to make room for rehabilitation. Unlike, say, Christian Boltanski’s redemptive arrangements of cast-off clothes, Kelley’s trash stays trash, even in an art gallery.

The experience of such seemingly purposeless activity has a peculiar tendency to unfold in time, particularly upon one’s first exposure to it. The delight one feels at the familiar materials in an unexpected context—the sheer sloppy, stupid fun of it—is quickly supplanted by the recognition of their essential wretchedness. The temptation to read some parable of innocence or naive friendliness into the pieces evaporates as their degeneracy becomes clear. And at that point, one has to laugh (although some are inclined to recoil instead).

Laughter itself is not an uncommon esthetic response these days. The art of the ’80s has in large part been a running comedy; if the old image of the artist was as secular priest, or free-market intellectual, the new one is as court jester. But Kelley is distinguishable from the rest of his generation in that the laughter he provokes is not cool but hot, not abstract but visceral, not a discreet, knowing chuckle but a sudden, red-faced snort. And it is funny—that we are inept fools whose abjectness is matched only by our vanity is the natural song of the comic. The art world, with its ennobling, redeeming contexts, has been more resistant to this insight than most. It is remarkable that we have escaped the profane melody for so long.

James Lewis is a regular contributor to Artforum. He divides his time between New York City and Austin, Texas.