Los Angeles

Mike Kelley, untitled, ca. 1974–76, duotone lithographic print, 24 x 17". From “Return of the Repressed: Destroy All Monsters, 1973–1977.”

Mike Kelley, untitled, ca. 1974–76, duotone lithographic print, 24 x 17". From “Return of the Repressed: Destroy All Monsters, 1973–1977.”

“Return of the Repressed: Destroy All Monsters, 1973–1977”

PRISM

Mike Kelley, untitled, ca. 1974–76, duotone lithographic print, 24 x 17". From “Return of the Repressed: Destroy All Monsters, 1973–1977.”

Among Mike Kelley’s 1976 series “Untitled (Allegorical Drawings),” a sketch shows a bony nude figure crouching on the mutating head of another; the caption below reads, CRUDE PEASANTS STANDING ON THE GLORY THAT ONCE WAS ROME—UNAWARE OF A RICH HERITAGE. The understated drawing, one of many from this period included in Prism’s exhibition “Return of the Repressed: Destroy All Monsters, 1973–1977,” seems emblematic of the attitude behind the protopunk/art collective founded by Kelley, Cary Loren, Niagara, and Jim Shaw. With inborn eccentricity, subtle aggression, and faux naïveté, the four young artists fashioned themselves into a troupe of “crude peasants” squatting amid the spoils of postwar popular culture, with Shaw and Kelley occupying a Victorian house in Ann Arbor, Michigan, known as “God’s Oasis Drive In Church.”

Although the collective has continued, variously, to work together as Destroy All Monsters (DAM) into the present, from late 1973 until the summer of 1976 (when Shaw and Kelley relocated to Southern California to attend CalArts), the original members of DAM sustained an involved collaboration that produced posters, collages, drawings, photographs, zines, films, videos, performances, spoken-words pieces, and noise music, all inflecting an idiosyncratic aesthetic sensibility. The exhibition presented a thorough overview of the group, yet in what proved to be a somewhat limiting curatorial decision, the offering was divided by individual artist. More than two hundred works and pieces of ephemera were installed across the expansive floors of Prism gallery, a designy, two-story retail space on the Sunset Strip. While Kelley and Shaw had been allotted prime real estate on the first floor, the second story held Niagara’s rarely seen childlike drawings and collages as well as Loren’s series of mostly black-and-white photos—the true gems of this exhibition. Seductively tracing the theatrics of DAM and its circle of loser-chic weirdos, these film-still-like portraits—such as Niagara with Knife and Mouse, 1974/2011, Jim Shaw as a Spaceman, and Francesca in Psychedelic Paint, both 1975/2011—borrow from Surrealism, noir, sci-fi, punk, and quite directly from Jack Smith (with whom Loren had briefly worked) to reflect DAM's affected mystique. Consequently, many of these photos were shot “on location” during the making of films such as the collagelike epic Grow Live Monsters, 1975, also on view.

If the show’s artist-by-artist organization undermined the collective impulse that connected the members of DAM in the first place, the strategic placement of key collaborative pieces throughout the show added important context to these rarely seen works. For example, in the Jim Shaw gallery, video documentation of Futurist Ballet, 1973—a performative happening of erotica readings, a staged interview, and noise music that Shaw and Kelley produced together—was smartly situated beside a set of the Xeroxed posters Shaw had made for this event. Elsewhere were the four mural-size banners and video (played here on a monitor, rather than projected as initially shown) that comprise Strange Früt: Rock Apocrypha, 2000–2001. The work (attributed collectively to DAM) was produced on the occasion of a festival celebrating Detroit’s radical subculture of the late 1960s and early ’70s, and the banners depict such cult Motor City figures as the Stooges and MC5 (members of the latter performed with late incarnations of DAM), John Lee Hooker, Alice Cooper, Sun Ra, and Ted Nugent, in addition to various lesser known local heroes. Despite their slick production value, these late works display that special category of fanboy veneration reserved for things that are at once fringe and mass-produced.

Destroy All Monsters was born of ’70s-recession-era Michigan and fed on both the urban corrosion of Detroit and the suburban eeriness of Ann Arbor, and this grainy friction rubs all around their work. Perhaps this is why these antirock outsiders sit rather uncomfortably within Prism’s (and the Sunset Strip’s) glossy, somewhat homogenized mise-en-scène. Ever the underground heroes to LA’s own cadre of in-the-know fanboys, DAM easily represents the fantasy of a cooperative stylistic authenticity, something of a rarity in an increasingly quotable art world. However, we should hope that this exhibition—as it stages DAM's parade of subversive geek values—might also still resonate with the cruder peasantry of the LA art world.

Catherine Taft