Mike Kelley

Mike Kelley shares with Georges Bataille the position of “excremental philosopher,” exploring the underbelly of patriarchal culture, and focusing on what is degraded, refused, denied, repressed, and embarrassing. With deft inflections, he turns the stereotypically “good” into the ugly, and infuses the stupidly familiar with just enough horror to turn its blandness inside out, replacing the smile with what it tries to cover up.

Most of the work on exhibit here was grouped under the heading “Half a Man” and resembled what is typically defined as “women’s work.” The wall-hanging More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid, 1987, is made from handknitted, tatted, and crocheted effluvia (which resale shops have a constantly rotting supply of) in burnt oranges, limey yellows, and sour purples; it is accompanied by a pyramid of shaped and colored candles, melted into one obnoxious, perfumed mass. Redolent with the sickly-sweet sentiment of gifts that are less about giving than about incurring a bottomless debt in the receiver, the horror in these pieces comes in part from a recognition of the child’s impossible position, forced to welcome even these treacly substitutes for love in exchange for a lifetime of feeling guilty. In Plush Kundalini and Chakra Set, 1987, a huge stuffed snake, reaching from floor to ceiling, represents the powerful and dangerous erotic energy released through certain yoga practices. It is ringed with peristaltic clusters of stuffed animals, color-coded to correspond to the different chakras on the human body, trimmed with ribbon, and topped with a pair of googly eyes. This packaging of a potentially destructive erotic force in the guise of a child’s toy is disturbingly perverse.

Kelley appropriates a wide range of representational conventions, eluding, or at least questioning, the look of “high” art. In Seventy-four Garbage Drawings and One Bush, 1988, he papered a wall of the gallery with reproductions of Sad Sack cartoons from which all but the garbage—in piles, and flying through the air—had been erased. What is at issue is the distinction between what is valued and what is valueless; “one bush” is represented somewhere within squiggles of garbage, and that is the thing we look for, vainly searching to differentiate “form” from formless refuse.

What makes Kelley’s work so effective and so disturbing is that his “all out assault on dignity”—again a phrase used to describe Bataille—respects no party line. From My Institution to Yours, 1987, frames blown-up reproductions of inane animal office cartoons with the noblest of revolutionary rhetoric. “High” and “low” culture are somehow equalized through the absurdity and ambiguity of these irreconcilable representations, though not with the glorious results one might expect. Kelley’s felt banners, for instance, which imitate the work of the former Catholic nun Mary Corita Kent also recall the well-meaning but feeble attempts of the ’60s Church to speak in a populist language. But there is a sinister undertone: “Joy” spelled both right-side-up and upside-down undoes itself, and the bland dictas of liberalism and brotherly love are unhinged by the cheerful emptiness of their graphic conventions. Still, these pieces carry the shadow of the messages they might like to have spread, and it is impossible to say outright that Kelley is making fun of anyone.

The artist’s complex, sometimes contradictory position is particularly evident in the most ambitious and controversial installation created for this exhibition, Pay For Your Pleasure, 1988. Hand-painted banners depicting great male thinkers line the hallway outside the gallery, countering the “women’s work” inside, and mimicking the academic portrait galleries of institutions like the University of Chicago (where the Renaissance Society is housed). A quote from each man’s work is painted above his portrait, referring in some manner to the privileging of art over the constraints of social life: “The fact of a man being a poisoner is nothing against his prose” (Oscar Wilde); “Men like Benvenuto Cellini ought not to be bound by law” (Pope Paul III); and so on. The punctum of this piece, however, is the inclusion of a small painting by the infamous Chicago murderer John Wayne Gacy, safe from Chicago aldermanic fervor in its locked chrome case. The Gacy painting calls the bluff of these celebrated men, testing their bold words with a troublesome example. The quotes themselves are seductive; compelling in their brevity, internal contradiction, and apparent riskiness, they tempt bourgeois consciousness with the illusion of life on the edge, but do so in a safely sanctioned manner. Kelley raises a network of questions about art and social excess, but leaves us to flail for ourselves among the contradictions of our cherished attitudes and beliefs.

Kelley had intended to line the hall with collection boxes for various victims’-rights organizations in Chicago. However, none of these organizations could be persuaded to associate their names with the Gacy painting, and the one lonely collection box—funds to be distributed anonymously—failed to fulfill Kelley’s intention. Nonetheless the installation managed to bring up a host of sticky issues, and questioned—site-specifically—certain pillars of Western thought.

Laurie Palmer