Mike Kelley

Galleria Emi Fontana

While Mike Kelley is best known for his content-heavy installations and lowbrow aesthetic, for this exhibition he seemingly returned to his roots as an abstract painter. On view were mostly two-dimensional, nonfigurative works from three series: “Memory Ware Flats,” (2000–2003), “Carpet,” and “Wood Grain” (both 2003–). The most decorative, the “Memory Ware Flats,” are rectangular-shaped boards prepped with colored grout and then encrusted with intricately patterned beads, fake pearls, buttons, and sparkling plastic “jewels.” (Ordinary household objects covered with bits of old china, glass, and the like are known in North American craft circles as “memory ware.”) The “Wood Grain” and “Carpet” paintings have more muted though still very textured surfaces: The former are painted with thin washes of acrylic paint to create trompe l’oeil effects, while the latter are pieces of real plush carpet that have been covered with a single color of paint applied according to a process similar to monotype printing.

In contrast to Kelley’s past use of paint, usually subordinated to a larger conceptual whole, here he seems to have given in to the lure of pure painterly effects: richness and variety of color and an attention to surface quality taking precedence over any easily readable content. But what makes these pictures most compelling, besides their obvious visual appeal, is Kelley’s ability to isolate, recycle, and rethink material and conceptual precedents in his own oeuvre. The “Memory Ware Flats” are a clear example of this, with their craftlike materials—a mainstay of his work from the beginning—and their references to memory, which first surfaced in his work during the mid-’90s when Kelley’s interest in Repressed Memory Syndrome became the impetus behind major projects like Educational Complex, 1995: models reconstructed from memory of the schools that the artist attended and the house he grew up in. Here, the use of the memory-ware technique not only pokes fun (as Kelley did with his stuffed-animal pieces) at the emotional or nostalgic value people invest in keepsakes and other inanimate objects but validates an otherwise kitsch aesthetic by using it purely for its pictorial potential.

The “Wood Grain” works are similarly materials-related, referring to Kelley’s fondness for untreated wood (for example, Orgone Shed and Colema Bench, both 1992) or painted simulations of it, like the fake wood-panel room divider in the 1991 Madrid version of the installation Alma Pater (Wolverine Den), 1991. The knots and grains of the new paintings, however, are primarily in vibrant colors, and the shapes and sizes of the boards are closer in scale to easel paintings than to utilitarian objects. Perhaps to offset this formal rather than functional impression, Kelley has added onto one board a painted reproduction of his felt banner from 1990, calling an audition for someone to play the poet and filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini: a humorous but somewhat obvious nod to the show’s primarily Italian public.

Kelley’s critical impulse is more subdued in this body of work, and one is tempted to think he has regressed, letting himself be seduced by the pleasure of making beautiful pictures. What keeps his art interesting, as in the past, is his willingness to consistently return to and deconstruct—with humor and intelligence—the art-historical status quo and his own place within it; and he does this without allowing his self-referentiality to cross the line into narcissism.

Elizabeth Janus