New York

Mike Kelley

Metro Pictures

Mike Kelley’s most ambitious recent work was The Poetics Project, his sprawling collaboration last summer with Tony Oursler. Exhibited in different form in various venues, this mixed-media extravaganza had to be broken up into separate galleries in New York to contain the Conceptual art spillage. Not good. Purportedly an “excavation” of their student years at CalArts, where they took up the spirit of do-whatever-the-fuck-you-want-and-make-art-while-you’re-at-it, The Poetics Project felt massively indulgent. For all the video and audio static that filled the galleries—not to mention more perfunctory drawing and painting hours than can ever be repaid—just looking at the work gave me a headache. Returning home, I needed Advil. At least Critical Inquiry in Green, the CD accompanying The Poetics Project, was pretty redeeming if you like Red Krayola or (my new favorite) Steven Prina.

Given the boring incoherence of The Poetics Project, Kelley’s recent show at Metro Pictures was almost a thrill. This grand two-part sculpture bears the unwieldy title Framed and Frame (Miniature Reproduction “Chinatown Wishing Well” built by Mike Kelley after “Miniature Reproduction ‘Seven Star Cavern’ built by Prof. H.K. Lu”), 1999, and the proliferation of differing quotational modes necessitated in citing it bears witness to the layers of narrative embedding that the title implies. Initially, Kelley’s reconstruction of the Chinatown Wishing Well, an LA landmark funded in part by Paramount Studios in honor of Chinese-American film star Anna May Wong, apparently partakes of the renewed interest in urbanism, e.g., the rediscovery of Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers. But rather than pretend to objective history, Kelley’s sculpture and related objects and photographs ensnare the attentive viewer in a phantasmagoria of associations.

Breaking his reconstruction of the Wishing Well into two parts tips us off to Kelley’s intentions: He doesn’t “reclaim” lost history so much as violate it. In one room, the artist displayed a replica of the well itself, an ungainly mass of rocklike accretions decorated with bits of kitsch Orientalia (fat laughing Buddhas, pagodas, etc.) as well as Madonna figurines (the mother of Jesus, not the Ray of Light). The whole thing was surmounted by a crucifix. In the other room, Kelley presented an enclosure, two sides of which are red, Forbidden City–type gates, the other two cheap cyclone fencing. This imperial gate/suburban fence surrounded a rather pitiful cement patio. Kelley set up several rifts: the ancient China of the Seven Star Grotto vs. the contemporary Chinatown of LA; Manchu “stars” like Tz’u-hsi vs. the largely forgotten star Wong; the fantasia of Hollywood (The Bitter Tea of General Yen, Lady from Shanghai, etc., Wong’s own movies) vs. the artist’s own working-class background.

Kelley’s 1993 Whitney retrospective demonstrated that complex multimedia works like the famous collaboration with Sonic Youth, Plato’s Cave, Rothko’s Chapel, Lincoln’s Profile, 1986, become either unintelligible or just boring displayed on the gallery wall. But the closer the artist gets to a coherent image—the stuffed-animal pieces, the felt banners—the more lucid his work becomes: an ironic victory for formalism. If the frustrating open-endedness of interpretation, interminable and futile, remains central to all of Kelley’s work, the recent show succeeds where ars poetica failed because of its big visual impression.

This sense of a destabilizing vagueness—Kelley’s refusal to cooperate in the interpretation of his work—is conveyed by a small desk that the artist included. Ever so modest compared to the sculpture itself, it’s the key to the show. Visitors could sit down and peruse various postcards and photographs that Kelley had collected, and read his sometimes deadpan, sometimes loopy commentaries. Alongside the Seven Star Cavern, Kelley places postcards of the Carlsbad, Skyline, and other famous caverns, noting of one interior: “an amazing example of biomorphic abstraction genitals,” and adding, “I have always been fascinated by the dirty coloration of tinted black and white photos . . . I find this ‘dirty’ coloration intensly [sic] erotic, especially paired with indeterminate forms.” Of the “Miner’s Castle” in Michigan, Kelley says: “One of my favorite childhood haunts. I fantasized about living at the base, near the water’s edge.” Below this, in red ink: “FUCK HUT.” The artist has also assembled a collection of film stills of Anna May Wong and Tuesday Weld in congruent poses that are nevertheless like mirror reversals. He comments: “The presentational formats are remarkably similar, given that the images are roughly 30 years apart. The Anna May/Tuesday comparison seems natural to the China Town Wishing Well with its ‘border crossings’ mixture of Christian statuary and Asian/Western design motifs.” I can’t help wondering whether in referring to “border crossings,” or to the “formless” character of the objects and sites that arouse his interest, or just arouse him, Kelley isn’t sending up a lot of recent critical language—language that often engages his work. The sense that his art is filled with innumerable doors (and culs-de-sac) encourages this notion. I’ll take interpretive drift over inchoate sprawl any day. Multiple interpretations are A-OK in art, but endless ones are like endless love: hopeless.

David Rimanelli is a contributing editor of Artforum.