PRINT March 1994


—This looks different than when I was here before for some reason.

—That wasn’t lit up. What is that.

—Don’t scream, Mother, I can’t stand it. It’s lurking here, lying in wait, ready to spring at any moment. Quiet, Mother. Now you understand the state I’m in.

—These guards are so obnoxious. There must be six or seven guards in this place.

—To become a child again a helpless child, to have to be fed, to have to—

—This is the most famous work, the pants shitter. It’s not caught up in this nonsense about taste that the rest of the show is; it’s about shitting your pants. I think it’s funny for someone whose work is about a blue-collar heritage of taste and value and esthetics to make these works and have people respond to them like they’re his critique of Color Field painting or something.

—old and gray haired like that, and you might die and I should be left alone, or the doctor said I might live for years you see, he called it “softening of the brain” or something of the sort—

—I don’t know if that’s really his point of view, but someone said this was about Color Field painting.

—I don’t always know where he’s coming from. The stuffed-animal thing—there’s really too many of them.

—It’s like a carnival.

—oh, Shylock—

—I myself had a dream about stuffed animals giving birth. Maybe the best way to see work like this is on the Sonic Youth CD folder Kelley did, or that kind of context, because then it’s about an image instead of an object.

—I think it’s good for young people to feel that failure is available to them.

—What’s the stuffed-animal stuff supposed to be about on an object level? Mixed ideals, or—as if somebody was a janitor and found a bunch of trash, estimating the value of it—an old trick; that myth of people thinking time will tell the truth about art. The only reason it wouldn’t be a myth is because people really believe it.

I can’t decide with these self-portraits if he thinks he’s attractive or ugly. What do you think.

—You mean do I think he is or isn’t, or what do I think he thinks he is? I think anyone that features himself as much as he does has got to be a raving narcissist.

—This one color photograph has—I mean sometimes I think portraiture works.

—He looks good in that picture too, don’t you think? He doesn’t usually look too great. This is Bob Flanagan and Sheree Rose “manipulating masturbatory idealized objects.” See, Bob’s art makes sense to me. In a lot of ways what I relate to in this work I relate to through what I feel for Bob’s work. Because it’s a milieu of sensibility I’m sort of half alienated from and half sympathetic to. This is the other thing I don’t get, he’s got all these projects—“This is from the project Half a Man. . . .”

—Having projects makes him sound like he’s an institution. These two photographs are interesting—the stuffed animals make sense now they’re having sex.

—What does “spelunking” mean?

—“Sometimes you have to go on all fours.”

—Here’s a lot of little stuffed puppies.

—You were supposed to get those when you were sick, it was like signing your cast? They were I think a brief phenomenon in the lower middle class. I guess we must have been lower than that, because I never got one, but they look like something I should’ve had. Back then, of course, they wouldn’t have been humping and kissing in a line. Do you like them?

—They’re better than a Koons at least. I now think you can only understand what Koons is as an artist in terms of his custody battles. . . .

—It’s all pathos and failure, like Candyass and those distressed-object people, little crushed cigarette packs and dust in the corner—Karen Kilimnik, Cady Noland.

—My friend Laura looked at this and said even David Salle was more interesting. But they’re both Cal Arts in a way; the dark side of Disneyland.

—I thought Michael Jackson was the dark side of Disneyland.

—I had the luxury of hearing Kelley speak on the show, about masculinity and being blue collar and how hard it was to be a man and make work about masculinity and sexuality and all those things.

How hard did he say it was?

—Let’s just say this show looks like compensation to me.

—These look like those afghans people knit for—

—The kind of stuff that would be on the set of Roseanne. I like the little blue guy in the corner.

—That doesn’t work, I’m sorry. I like this candle thing? It looks like excrement but it’s not. I like these constructions with stuffed animals and afghans and colors and stuff—they’re not just some schlocky critique of a Catholic upbringing, they’re about sex and like primal drive.

—Here’s an anal invasion.

—Yes, a tiny little brown beaver mouse vermin thing leaning up against two pillows that look like footballs, with a snake. The mouse looks like it’s going Keep going! I can take it! though the snake is fourteen times its size.

—Oh, I love these wall texts: “another oppressive system of evaluation, a system of emotional potlatch.”

—That’s not a word.

—Yes it is.

—Did you know he used Jackson Pollock’s paintings as a compositional model?

—Well, I can see that.

—Really? I can see a 1980s Julian Schnabel dish painting.

—But I do like those two paintings. . . .

—You kind of dressed to look like them.

—I did. I think I even splashed on a little Old Spice. The people who write these labels never realize what they’re saying. See, here’s a quote from him: “After doing the performances for a number of years and always denying that I had a belief system of my own it started to fall apart . . . I saw that certain themes came back again and again.” That probably means he’s realized there are holes in all his furniture pieces.

—Maybe they should clarify. All these labels use the word “found,” like he just walked out one morning and there was an army of stuffed animals on his lawn. They should rewrite the whole 20th century—every time they say “found” they should put the word “collected.” “This combines things like psychological torture—” Like psychological torture?

—Don’t you get the feeling that there’s a whole story missing with this work? Like, somebody got really pissed off at his girlfriend and they had a big fight and everybody knows about it and that’s the missing subtext? So what are these, like little swollen vegetables? A banana, a carrot?

—Or maybe a French bean?

—I’m not sure I understand the point of all this dirt—how dirty the stuffed animals are, I mean.

—It’s to show they’re found, they’re somebody else’s. It’s also nostalgic, I guess.

—Yeah, but it’s also dirty.

—Maybe they spend so much money on security guards here they don’t have any left for a cleaning service.

—These kinds of objects lose their allure once they get grimy, like cat toys.

—Cats know when that allure is gone.

—His idea is that their essence or allure has to do with their filth. Although I don’t see any stuffed animals that have actually been inserted in people’s bodies.

—Well, we don’t know. These banners with authors’ portraits must be the reading list of the Whitney Program.

—It’s some strange reverse snobbery.

—Snobbery against archaic academic nonsense, or against the brilliant writers of the past shown in the schlocky watercolors?

—Oh, that painting down there is by some murderer or other, so all these quotations by famous authors that have to do with the criminality of the artist lead up to or are a pretext for our interest in that piece down there, which of course from here does not look terribly interesting.

—I thought it was a misplaced Chuck Close.

—It’s an interesting question about the snobbery—the way people like Dostoevsky, Artaud, Gide, Foucault, are indexed all the time by these West Coast people as kind of, like, These are our adolescent rock ’n’ roll heroes, but they’re also empty stupid etc. Are we meant to put money in these little bins?

—For the North Shore Child Victim Fund, apparently.

—I can’t figure out what he’s on about—you wouldn’t know this was painted by a murderer unless the label said so. Is there some rule that murderers aren’t supposed to know how to paint? Like there’s supposed to be something wrong with the painting because the artist is immoral? I mean if that were true. . . .

The show feels like the epitome of a time that’s gone—a certain time and a cleverness and a trickery that were in vogue. In that public lecture he was so self-deferential—like Excuse me, I’m not a good speaker, this won’t be interesting—but then he spent the whole evening making jokes about collectors as people who don’t know what to do with their money except waste it on him, and it seemed like every one of his punch lines was, But please, people, come back for more. I thought, Gee, how cozy. I guess I’m being an idealist, but to see a bunch of people sit and laugh about how somebody’s making money off them just made me cynical about the work. I want to know about the impulse or the motivation at the gut level. I mean, at what point can you talk about being a pants shitter when it’s no longer about being a pants shitter, it’s about, I just bought a pants shitter!?

—I’m always amused by how the sordid, everyday, abject facts of capitalism, like how you make a living, become irrelevant when you really start to make money. That’s suddenly beneath examination. An artist can shit the stuff out and they buy it and then he can even cop this thing of how silly they are to buy it.

—The documentation of Kelley’s performances is probably supposed to give you some access into his impulse.

—The photos are nice. These ones are sad; they remind me of the David Wojnarowicz piece with the buffalo jumping off the cliff. Some of this stuff is really funny.

—The arrogance is very boyish.

—Maybe it’s just that this show isn’t making a real great case for the artist. I remember gallery shows of his I liked, like those big environments—

—You’re talking about the wooden structures? They kind of transcend themselves, I know I sound like Roberta Smith or something but they’re crafted with some kind of affection, it’s not just—

—Yeah, those installations were really well made, even though the objects were dysfunctional. In this show there’s so much contempt—

—Some of the pictures are witty and interesting.

—I like these: “Sea monkey powder on rice paper,” “Mandrake root powder on rice paper, and sperm.”

—Collection of—

—Orangutans are such interesting animals. That’s a hell of a way to say “Love me,” showing your ass like that. I love all the sexuality and references to bodies. “Modelling device after a do-it-yourself metaphysics book.” What’s a do-it-yourself metaphysics book? Metaphysics don’t do anything.

—These are good, these spirit photos. They look ’20s, very Buñuel, like those grotesque pictures that people like Bataille used to collect.

—They look like people institutionalized. The way that one is out of focus makes the upward gaze more convincing.

—But there’s so many goddam givens. You read the wall label and it tells you a lot of things in Kelley’s work refer to the spirit world. I’m no label writer, but if I were I think I’d footnote. I mean what spirit world?

—A show like this is so much about the fiction of cohesiveness, the articulation of—

—one great mind—

—but it really seems kind of fragmented. I just don’t believe the whole white trash thing. White trash is my life; there’s a Mike Kelley performance I can call home. But I just don’t feel it’s—everything’s so romanticized. At the lecture he said he’d be happy if a security guard enjoyed the work more than the collector who bought it, and I thought, Maybe the guard already has a sack of this shit at home. We should read this, it’s probably important:

—“Michigan, suburb of Detroit—”

—But see, he’s only 39 and they’ve already got him “as a young man”— “as a young man he explored Detroit’s burgeoning counterculture.”

—What did Kelley have to do with Motown? “A year after enrolling at Cal Arts he was an active performance artist”—

—Conceptual spelled with a capital “C.”

—If I were him I wouldn’t put this emphasis on “writing” as integral to his project.

—Yeah, just because he throws in a reference or two to Kant. It’s like Woody Allen pretending he reads Heidegger, I mean give me a break.

—What seems to matter in these wall labels is that he’s identified as a performer. But there’s something funny about taking something time-related, extracting the time from it, and leaving us the three-dimensional product. You know, there’s a big difference between shit and shitting. A huge difference. One could sum up the world on that note, you know?

—This piece actually does feel metaphysical. Maybe he’d say it’s an afghan, but he didn’t find it in the garbage—it’s half the size of a tennis court, somebody made it for him. I love that there’s stuff underneath it. Did you see a piece he made that I loved where he put little stuffed animals in coffins? It’s not in this show.

—This is called Lumpenprole?

—“Reminiscent of the controlled chaos of Barry Le Va’s scatter pieces and Christo’s”—

—Yeah, but it’s really nice anyway.

—Oh, here’s where you start to get the whole Dennis Cooper serial-killer-chic thing— The Man with the Candy, little torture racks.

—What was that movie, River’s Edge?

—It’s the River’s Edge mystique. All these people in their 40s who still think they’re apathetic teenagers.

—Do a joint and fantasize about murder and sex.

—But isn’t it funny, they’re well into their 40s and it’s “Oh, man, I’m so wasted from that dope. . . .”

—“I’m going to take a shit on you! That was some good hash. Let’s strangle some children. . . . ” I do know people who get high and want to have uninhibited sex that’s about torture and pain, but this estheticized idea about it is gross. To me, the murderers-fucking-at-the-edge-of-death thing is about this deep void of maleness—this part of Kelley’s identity that can’t be answered through sexuality, or through the conventional life-style of the middle class he was raised in. Maybe it’s that West Coast phenomenon of filling the void, like that tape by Kelley we just heard: “Mother, why’d you give me life, I didn’t ask for it, you have to fill it, you have to be responsible for entertaining me, otherwise I’m just gonna smoke pot, be unemployed, and murder people, have sex with them maybe before and after.” I guess I think that’s strange material to fill in the empty space of your life. “Mother where’s the morphine?,” on the other hand—I ask that question myself.

Gary Indiana’s third novel, Rent Boy, was published recently by Serpent’s Tail/High Risk Books of New York and London.