Los Angeles

Mike Kelley

Near the entrance to Mike Kelley's recent show hung what looked like a Brezhnevera poster in red, black, and yellow on which was printed a manifesto concerning the need to address the national problem of sexual frustration. Insisting our collective repression stems from a “mass culture industry” that relies on titillation without gratification to keep us coming back for more, Kelley proposes that celebrities—who profit off inflaming the national itch without scratching it—finally be called on to put out. He suggests that members of this “pantheon of fantasy figures of desire” should do time in federally funded sex clinics. To ensure enough star flesh to go around, wanna-be celebrity look-alikes would receive necessary plastic surgery free of charge in exchange for tours of duty in the clinics.

Apparently aware that there might be some delay before his program gets off the ground, Kelley offers a “stopgap measure,” exhibiting seven pleasure stations, perhaps for immediate use, or maybe even to inspire us to make our own. Melding clothing, fabric scraps, art supplies, toys, lamps, pillows, and low-tech gizmos, Kelley has created hand-crafted celebrity surrogates, soft sculptures adorned with famous faces clipped from movie posters (the faceless originals hang nearby as a point of reference) while audio decks play looped sound bites sampled from the appropriate films.

When Kelley’s work truly succeeds, as it does here, it transcends bad-boyishness and functions on the level of interactive satire. It isn’t a matter of presenting an outrageous or distastefully tinted vision of popular culture and leaving it for the viewer to allocate his or her attention. With these works, one literally walks right into it. By the time the viewer has gotten an eyeful of ’69 Action Heroes, 1998, a pair of brawny (and fully equipped) pillow constructions masked with the mugs of Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren and accompanied by the sounds of each stud’s respective heavy breathing and grunting, it’s too late to decide whether to process the implications. You’re already there, and there is precisely where Kelley wants you to be.

In other works, Kelley ably recognizes cues from his source material and follows his biting wit down a variety of uncomfortable avenues, as in Odd Man Out, 1998, which couples pillows dressed in children’s clothing (and featuring knitted orifices) with the clipped-out faces of the cheeky, prepubescent Olsen twins and the main characters from the 1996 boy-ape friendship film Dunston Checks In. And if you’re up for something extra fun, poke your head inside a little white tent whose red interior resembles a harem. Here you’ll look down the throat of a man-eating worm (the image is taken from the poster for the 1995 flick Tremors 2: Aftershocks) while listening to a tape loop of Timmy the Tooth, the title character of a dental-themed children’s “edutainment” video, babbling about the need to fill a “hole that does not want to rot.”

Good satire requires a keen appreciation of cultural baggage large and small, of which Kelley shows himself to be a virtuoso, but it also demands a similar awareness from the audience. With the half-life of pop-icon auras becoming increasingly shorter, the potential for an audience disconnect grows greater. Kelley seems to like dealing in the flickering margins of celebrity, highlighting the absurdity of positioning mere up-and-comers, fading stars, and fringe players as desire magnets within culture. But what if the desire, or even the recognition, isn’t there? This might be why Kelley has included posters: to jar our video-store memory of recent output that already seems distant. How these works will fare even in the short run remains to be seen, but for the moment, they seem to do just what Kelley likely had in mind: offer no real relief for the itch while leaving one dwelling on it all the more.

Christopher Miles