Los Angeles

Michael Kelley

Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions

Like most of his previous performances, Michael Kelley’s Reflections on a Can of Vernors draws its images from history and geography, and has at its core a central image that forms its title and is echoed in its props. It is a good deal longer than the works that preceded it, and there is a lot more talking; it is, to quote Kelley from the performance, “afflicted with the sin of oratory.” That the piece is long and long-winded is not surprising. His most ambitious work to date, Reflections . . . is Kelley’s history of America.

In spite of the performance’s expanded text, its ostensibly familiar subject, and its literal literariness—the libretto borders on epic poetry and is divided into verses by a repeated chorus—Reflections . . . is not a linear history, but an atmospheric and synchronic one. Its subject is the past itself, “a dark and tangled mystery,” a collective, nostalgic, and Freudian memory. Veiled and dark, with an “atmosphere thicker than air,” Kelley’s American past is loaded with the pantheistic Americanism of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman. Reflections . . . has no story or plot. The script shifts constantly, and its references to history, politics, and philosophy are saddled with bits of old jokes, scatological clichés, and nonsense rhymes. But Kelley’s breakneck pace and manic presence keep the unstable allusions that string the work together from unraveling.

The performance’s title, and its chorus (“Why is he winking? It screws up the symmetry”), are clues to its organization. Kelley’s images, verbal and visual, are divided into two opposing fields. The chorus’ question refers to the winking Viking on the Vernors Ginger Ale can. One-eyed, he is asymmetrical, and it is the reflections in the performance—mirror images, actual and implied—that complete him and make him his opposite, two-eyed and symmetrical. The Viking’s inherent and self-contained opposition is echoed in Kelley’s unfocused and self-defeating discourses on rationality and irrationality, Classicism and Romanticism, and materialism and spirituality. His subjects are never quite separable from each other, and his illustrations, his props, are all at least double agents.

Reflections . . . begins with Kelley walking a sheet-draped tripod across the stage toward a three-legged stool. The tripod is an asymmetrical combination of the singular and plural, which Kelley both animates and assigns sex with a preadolescent remark on the “third leg.” He is the king (“walk-king”), and Kelley “strips him down to reveal his bare essentials.” Atop the tripod is a makeshift surveyor’s level, and the king is dubbed “Sir Voyeur”. A cyclopean eye on a pyramid, the king’s “bare essentials” are echoed in a paper cutout through which he peeks into the past, in the lighthouse he spies through it, and in the ’50s table lamps sans shades that surround his tripod throne.

Kelley scrambles around his makeshift stage—a large sheet of black plastic—in a focused frenzy, acting out his libretto line by line as though compelled by his speech. The stage is scattered with and surrounded by props, most of them simple objects; Kelley continuously recycles them and transforms them to illustrate, and at times to obfuscate, his meaning. The stage itself functions somewhat as a map. Two columns of newspaper—a newspaper metropolis—stand at its center, and beside it sits a small, pillared papier-mâché temple. These, too, are at odds—past and present, urban and rural, secular and spiritual.

Walking to the edge of the plastic, Kelley defines the border, first between past and present and later between countries, as “the fine line that keeps things from spreading.” Kelley’s border is an axis that creates symmetry. He subordinates his objects to a twisted, mutable, yet rhetorical logic that severs them from the world of like and literal objects and renders them metaphors. That process is echoed in his libretto. He refuses to let meaning freeze his words; the subject of one stanza, the butt of its metaphors and the lesson of its allegories, becomes the actor and allegorist in the next. Kelley’s delivery, somewhere between a chant and a shout, completes the separation, splitting sound from language and making each fodder for his forced allusions. Finally this process is an analogue for his subject—his allusions mimic memory. They reconstruct a synchronic past with fragments of specifics, like the names and monuments on the historied landscape.

Howard Singerman