New York

Mike Kelley

Metro Pictures

Mike Kelley makes cheerfully perverse art out of the discarded refuse of unromanticized childhood, the childhood of unwanted effluvia, seepages, feces, and spit. That the stuffed animals he uses have so obviously borne the depredations of infantile play (they are dirtied, bitten, and sometimes mauled beyond recognition) suggests that once again Kelley is engaged in the caricatured transgression of idealized forms and contents. The treacly idealization of childhood frequently cloaks the most coercive ideological programs; children are typically sanctified as either beyond or before sexuality and aggression, with a few token bad seeds acknowledged only as the exceptions that prove the rule. It is for the kids’ sake that sex is policed and morality enforced, and it is this often obsessive protection of “innocent” children from the forbidden chaos of rioting limbs that at least partially excuses the comparatively normalized violence of grown-ups.

Impatient with both prettiness and rectitude, Kelley bluntly adds insult to injury in his recent show. His disarmingly casual arrays of soiled stuffed animals on pilled blankets suggest a demonic McMartin preschool phantasmagoria.

Kelley’s casual-looking stuffed animal “sculptures” scarcely seem like art at all. Were they not contextualized as art within the context of Metro Pictures, it would be easy to inadvertently step on them. Instead, gallery visitors gingerly circumnavigate the blankets, disoriented by the work’s genuine strangeness. Estheticization is out of the question here; much of the charge of these assemblages derives from Kelly’s apparent indifference to craft and the proximity of the work to “real life.” Upping the ante on “My-kid-could-do-this” philistinism, a vestigial market critique is at work here. It is as if Kelley were taunting his collectors: why on earth would anyone actually buy these things?

Kelley’s bedraggled playfellows enact various scenarios of sex, war, spoliation, and abjection. In one jarringly endearing piece, they hide beneath a noisome blanket, visible to us only as tumescent lumps. The individual pieces suggest a larger narrative of displaced or lost objects; Kelley retrieves these unwanted thrift-shop refugees from meaningless obscurity, recontextualizing them within the art gallery where their uselessness is fetishized as ultimate value.

In a series of defaced high-school history textbook illustrations simultaneously on view in a group show at Jay Gorney Modern Art, Abe Lincoln sports a crudely drawn swastika on his forehead; dignified statesmen in fancy 18th-century garb bare staggeringly large erections; and scatology and coprophilia abound. Kelley mocks the strictures of equivocating politeness usually imposed by the mechanisms of the art market, art history, and art criticism. Infantilized by the art world, he can only resort to using dirty language.

David Rimanelli