Los Angeles

Mike Kelley

Rosamund Felsen Gallery

For several years Mike Kelley has been performing intense, angry, aggressive aural and visual scenarios and producing large-scale, cartoonlike drawings on paper which are brutal, awkward, and often shocking in style as well as content. Their subject reflects the artist’s outrage at the social and personal violence that, more often than not, has been perpetrated both historically and currently in the name of religion and truth. Kelley titled his recent exhibition “Plato’s Cave, Rothko’s Chapel, Lincoln’s Profile: a synopsis of the heroic archetypes (male) in Western philosophy, contemporary American painting, and American history.” Neither reveling in expressionistic accolades to these monumental themes, nor despairing of their dissipation, Kelley presents them as a compendium—symbols whose potency is subliminally embedded in our psyches but which are not beyond debunking.

The 34 works in various media in this exhibition, all from 1985, played off one another and often incorporated esoteric art/cultural references that require decoding. In the triptych Sic Semper Tyrannis (the motto of the state of Virginia), for example, the central image is the standardized, though hand-painted, image of honest Abe, except that his eyes are covered by Lincoln pennies that look, at first, like glasses. The highly abstracted images on the left and right, labeled Sic and Tyrannis, are derived respectively from a photograph Kelley took of the bloodstain on the chair on which Lincoln was sitting when he was shot, and an askew image of the state of Virginia. Honest Abe meets violated Virginia and dies, still caught in the middle. In the same room a painting entitled Rainbow Coalition combined references to Lincoln’s opposition to slavery, Jesse Jackson, the contemporary racial crisis in Africa, Kelley’s own Roman Catholic background, and the artist/nun Sister Mary Corita. Done in acrylic on canvas and hung from the ceiling, the painting is an aerial view of massed Afro hairstyles painted in Sister Corita’s rainbow colors—as in her “Love” U.S. postage stamp.

This exhibition’s coup de grace was an installation that could only be entered by slithering along the floor beneath a drawing suspended from the ceiling to about 15 inches above the ground. Once inside, we were offered the comfort of three artificial home fires burning—a blinking, Christmas Eve-ish chimney and logs, a log cabin-like pile of wood, and a high-tech flickering candle. The central fire—the simple wood pile—was flanked by two large free-hanging paintings on unstretched cotton tarps, each slit in the middle and stained on either side. The red-stained piece was called Wound, the purple Rothko’s Blood Stain (Artist’s Conception)/Body Print (Self Portrait as the Shroud of Turin). Monochromatic unstretched canvases that hung along the walls looked minimal but were symbolically titled, as in Four Bodily Fluids (sperm, urine, blood, feces) and The Four Races (Caucasian, Oriental, Indian, Negroid). In both series the panels are, of course, painted white, yellow, red, and black. In the midst of this symbolic summation of mankind, imitation flickerings of light in The Trajectory of Light in Plato’s Cave confront us with the ancient origins of our fascination with illusion in the context of decorative formalism. Confined in this deluge of image and idea, we have difficulty knowing how to proceed.

Melinda Wortz