Mike Kelley

Jablonka Galerie

Mike Kelley’s exhibition here was bound to strike a nerve in the viewer who hopes to look at art with restraint or curiosity, judging it in peace and quiet and drawing inspiration or not. Instead, without a distance to facilitate the experience, the viewer found himself in front of paintings that seemed to bode no good. They demand, “Discover the human body organ: the brain, the lungs, the kidneys, the heart, the intestines.” With quiet compositions and modest gradations of black and white, these works take us on a very special pictorial journey into the world of organic tissue—and polyethylene garbage bags.

Kelley presents the viewer with the self-explanatory, yet elliptical Heart with a Fancy Hat, 1989; a pair of lungs, one cheerful, one sad (Comic and Tragic Lung, 1989); and a horrifying image of a lady with a parted-tongue coiffure (Double Lapping Tongue Brunette, 1989). With Incorrect Sexual Model Corrected Symmetry, 1987, he presents two kissing kidneys and the furrows and whorls of a brain; on the left, a female part with long hair, and on the right, a male part, with short hair and a five o’clock shadow. These organic ornamental forms ridicule the representational possibilities of art, which can create a kind of insight into anything. Here, these insights are based on bilateral symmetry occurring in various combinations. This symmetry toys with both fun and nightmares, with cheeriness and sadness. Kelley’s highly individual sense of humor is pitch black; the material basis of his depictions is white. The visitor in the gallery can also stand on two bathroom rugs—one black, one white—in order to grasp the bilateral model in situ.

Black and white form the fundamental pair of opposites in this panopticon of anthropomorphic sausage-, brain-, bowel-, bag-, and heart-personalities. The humor and seriousness of these paintings consist of irony and playfulness, but their artistic substance and compositional fascination derive from the constant tensions between theme and countertheme—the duality of black and white, male and female, laughter and weeping. Even the irony and playfulness turn into a motif/countermotif pair.

Basically, Kelley’s paintings travesty the notion of symmetry as the foundation of an esthetic, biological, or logical system. They are virtually parodies of familiar forms and objects. The viewer has to perceive the depictions in this show as having a wealth of consequences: the garbage bag as the social body; the heart with the hat as the absurd archetype of sentimental figures of speech. All this hides a strange blend of apparently macabre resignation, poignant seriousness, and jeering nastiness. However, Kelley’s paintings do not joke. On one hand, they create an anxiety-provoking atmosphere of the most bizarre monkey business; on the other hand, in order to resume the game of theme and countertheme, they avoid getting all too earnest. By transforming the visible as the one pictorial motif into the invisible as the other pictorial motif, they point to persistent thinking and satirical ability. Whatever our standpoint—whether on a white or a black mat, whether we flinch or feel curious—Kelley’s paintings inevitably enthrall us with their fierce independence and their fresh, bilateral liveliness.

Norbert Messler

Translated from the German by Joachim Neugroschel.