New York

Mike Kelley, Plato's Cave, Rothko's Chapel, Lincoln's Profile

Metro Pictures / Artists Space

The Los Angeles-based artist Mike Kelley made one of his periodic New York forays with a triple-threat show, a multiformat statement presented as a gallery exhibition (at Metro Pictures), a book (published by New City Editions and Artists Space, 1986), and a performance (at Artists Space), all with the same three-part title: Plato’s Cave, Rothko’s Chapel, Lincoln’s Profile. The simultaneous multiplicity of media seemed to sharpen Kelley’s thought-skewers; his polytropic ideas throbbed with a compelling urgency, given form in all three media by means that were more confidently economical and more focused in presentation than his previous performance/exhibitions. Not that the force behind them—Kelley’s persona of equal parts Iggy Pop, Pere Ubu, and Michel Foucault—came off as any less nose-thumbingly playful, painfully earnest, or simply outrageous.

The visual works laid out images and themes like a call to mental riot, blunt posters to arouse a reaction—any reaction. Paintings, drawings, and wall assemblages were loaded up with Kelley’s singular, free-wheeling vocabulary: automatic writing, images and references from Catholicism, weird fixations (caves, Lincoln’s profile), the violent (bloody body prints), and the obscene (allusions to excrement). These works studded the gallery walls like a shotgun blast of emotional buckshot. Sarcasm, scatological humor, bad jokes, Animal House-like high jinks, semiological explorations, and childlike reveries burst forth from, for example, Nazi War Cave II, 1986 (swastikas painted over a view of a factory/cave), Lent Felt, 1985 (a felt banner displaying a beautified rabbit), and Freedom, 1985, a “drawing” in which dried ketchup is splattered on a mustard background.

It’s a go-for-the-jugular-or-else approach, and one of the works crystallized Kelley’s all-out assault: a diptych done in 1985 that paired off a purple blob on cloth—Rothko’s Bloodstain (Artist’s Conception)—with a human outline painted in a dried-blood color—Self-Portrait as the Shroud of Turin. Here, Kelley’s portentous meanings multiplied like a rapidly metastasizing cancer: suicide and esthetics, religious mysticism and hard facts, public object and private ritual—all of these jostled in a complex, overheated mixture for an authenticity that Kelley can’t or won’t find. Looking at these wall works was like trying to pinpoint a serious fracture in a multilayered, constantly moving X ray; the rupture was palpable, but its import was hard to define.

Such attitudinizing lends itself to performance. Although Kelley’s book, which was available for perusal at both galleries, comes across as a perturbing curiosity (as literature, his obsessions seem more willful than urgent), it made a potent text for his performance work.

While the noise-rock band Sonic Youth played at the rear of a thrust stage installed at Artists Space, Kelley stalked the apron of the stage, chanting his run-on incantations in a flat, Charles Manson-like accent and cavorting like a tranced-out Jim Morrison. His actions were sketchy and cartoonlike, performed to the band’s atmospheric bursts of sonic storms and occasional programmatic accompaniment, as when Kelley walked a Barbie doll to arpeggios plucked on a highly amplified guitar. Kelley’s manic manipulation of a few props—rope, suitcases, a tie-dye banner, a candle, a length of pipe—cross-referenced the same objects that he presented in the visual art and wrote about in the book. As a performance, Plato’s Cave, Rothko’s Chapel, Lincoln’s Profile occupied a strange no-man’s-land between knotty conceptualism and infantile play, between a lecture demonstration and a rock concert. Despite the inevitable ambiguity of this, it succeeded as a brainy provocation because of Kelley’s conviction about the significance of his acts.

Carlo McCormick