New York

Mike Kelley

It’s gotta be sheer coincidence that Mike Kelley’s exhibition opened the same month that Superman officially died, but the end of an era of a red-white-and-blue super hero couldn’t be a more fitting backdrop to Kelley’s take on another media cliché of masculinity—the suburban handyman. In his do-it-yourself universe, the basement bricoleur sets up shop to custom craft a Primaling Cabinet, an Orgone Shed, a Colema Bench, a Kneading Board and a Torture Table (all works 1992), and other spooky items indispensable to a highly idiosyncratic version of the pursuit of health and happiness. Kelley scripts a pseudo-American male persona that is part Jeffrey Dahmer, the power-tool-wielding, homebody mass murderer; part Bob Villa, the yuppie self-sufficiency expert of This Old House; and part “the sensitive naked man” on Saturday Night Live.

The composite sketch of a subversive, right-wing, and new-age “home-alone” wierdo all rolled into one, spoofs masculinity—a wry rejoinder to the criticism that his homemade, needle-crafted snugglies, purloined from thrift stores, cast the loving feminine hands and wanting children’s arms from which they had been separated in a pejorative light. But the “me-too” mimicry, if it takes pot shots at political correctness, also opens for scrutiny a deeper, darker vein into the living theater of ’90s American Gothic in which the ghosts of such infamous do-it-yourselfers as Joe McCarthy and Wilhelm Reich make cameo appearances alongside Bernard Goetz and countless others who had a vision that failed and, who, in the process of their induction into the annals of infamy, got more than a little wacky. Of course, Kelley himself is also one of the players in this “naked snack” underground comedy. Not unlike William Burroughs, who lives in Kansas, his character is one who gives the appearance of making anthropological field reports from behind enemy lines, but whose insider knowledge of the lower-middle-class suburban interzone in which he operates is so astute that it suggests he may very well be acting as a double agent.

As with his “found,” tattered, crocheted dolls and drool-stained blankies, the underlying ethos of his current handyman specials gives the impression of an unschooled maker of only average intelligence with a sincere and naive creative impulse, whose folkloric esthetic echoes the heartland America where cuteness and make-do ingenuity and the libertarian ethic of “a man’s home is his castle” are cardinal virtues. But Kelley hasn’t just gone out and “found” a second-hand Orgone Shed, this time, Kelley is the “maker” of this and other clumsily customized objects like the Colema Bench, the sort used for therapeutic enemas, but one manufactured in absorbent, unfinished plywood that would become easily soiled with runny brown fecal juice and nasty after one usage. He is also the producer of the Primaling Cabinet, which is supposed to enable one to scream out pent-up pain without disturbing the neighbors. But it’s another lemon of a sensitivity accessory. Rather than a soundproof padded cell suitable for a domestic environment, Kelley has created a human-sized speaker cabinet. Instead of muffling sound, via two large holes cut into one side and covered with burlap fabric, the contraption inadvertently amplifies and projects cries of agony. Kelley’s character never seems to get it right, but in the manner of Freudian slips of the hand, his de Sadean sexual fantasies take delicious form—if, that is, your tastes run to a quick set-up torture table, or to a portable john with an erect electronic microphone rising from the depths of the toilet to enhance the private exhilaration of a bowel movement. The tease, of course, is that in this suit against the American male, it’s not entirely clear whether Kelley himself is the plaintiff or the defendant—or on which side of the bench we choose to position ourselves relative to the games we play after dark.

Jan Avgikos