Mike Kelley Odd Man Out (AKA Hollywood Babylon ?) Glue Magazine 1999
Mike Kelley has pulled off an enviable feat, one that has earned him more than his fair share of backlash derision from lesser colleagues and uninformed fledgling art scenesters alike. Yet it has afforded him the full benefits of art world fame without some of the more embarrassing and deleterious side-effects that typically plague the upper echelons of the haut monde of high culture. It is this: Mr. Kelley has reached the highest level of recognition, influence and acceptance while his art remains not-boring. Not only not-boring, but challenging, innovative, profound, and funny.
Where most successful mid-career artists lapse into repetitive shticks guaranteed to produce a certain amount of income, brand-name recognition, and MOR approbation, Kelley has stuck to his conceptual guns, abandoning what could have been a highly lucrative cottage industry in stuffed animal assemblage for homely explorations of Reichian orgone accumulators and other fringe handyman perversions, rickety architectural models of institutions he had been processed through, built from memories 'recovered' in the hardcore Satanic abuse/UFO abduction manner, and, most recently, his collaborative theater-of-ephemerality-of-experience cum multimedia art-noise band auto-rockumentary The Poetics .
Unfortunately, Kelley also spearheaded the movement whereby blue chip LA artists show primarily in Europe (where people actually buy art), followed by New York, and lastly, if at all, in their hometown. The Poetics , shown last January at Patrick Painter Inc., was Kelley's first LA gallery show in 4 years, and, as a collaborative video installation that had already been exhibited in Barcelona, was not widely regarded as a comeback. This should not be the case with Hollywood Babylon , a suite of 6 new sculptures debuting January 23 at Painter's Bergamot Station digs, which promises to revive Kelley's local currency as a vital contemporary voice.
The sculptures consist of framed film posters from which key elements, usually parts of the movie stars' faces, have been removed and attached to soft stuffed floor sculptures ranging from the classic minimalist abstractionist black & white rectangles of Untitled (Priest/Yankee Zulu) (all works 1998) to the sinister but goofy pillow figuration of Composite Femme Fatale . In addition, each sculpture is wired with an audio track sampled from the movies in question, whether it's the Olsen twins’ noxious looped exhortation to "Go for it!" in Odd Man Out , or the grating soundtrack to the aforementioned Priest/Yankee Zulu piece which generated dueling petitions for and against its censorship at last October's Berlin Art Fair.
Ostensible sex surrogate devices -- needed only until the government-sponsored public celebrity sex clinics proposed in the exhibit’s manifesto (“Once everyone finds within their grasp the means to pleasure on a daily basis, a ritualized arena of spectacular fantasy figures will serve no cultural purpose. Within a generation, sexual repression will cease to be a major factor as a cause for mental and physical illness!”) are up and running -- Kelley's sculptures operate (as usual) on a number of simultaneous levels. The movies referred to, while including such art house fare as Exotica or The Last Seduction , tend for the most part to the trashy end of the culture spectrum ( How the West Was Fun ), and are subjected in general to further degradation, generally along the pop-Freudian lines that are among Kelley's trademark strategies.
In '69 Action Heroes , for instance, Dolph Lundgren and Jean-Claude Van Damme are grafted from their hyper-testosteronic B-movie contexts onto a pair of neatly ordered rows of throw cushions altered slightly, but effectively, to evoke cartoonishly exaggerated and sexually ambiguous genitalia. In Chocolate Lump (Wild Style) , one of the lesser Wayans is transposed from a doodly-tagged poster for the lame Don't Be a Menace to Society While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood onto a debased parody of black street culture that looks like a soiled mound of chocolate ice cream with an anus.
On a less confrontational level, the Hollywood Babylon sculptures examine the historic tension between two and three-dimensional representation in the light of the flattening mythologizing process of contemporary mass media. Slick, generic stereotypes- the ultimate in superficial impenetrability- are carved and assembled, Frankenstein style, into monstrously abject soft toys with gaping mutant vulnerabilities.
Like its namesake exploitation classic by Kenneth Anger, Kelley's Hollywood Babylon exposes the soft pink underbelly of our desperately contained mainstream culture, then pokes it and tickles it till it squeals like a cartoon pig. And as a gauge to how much more art of substance we can expect from LA'S soiled rag-doll king it's about as far from "Th-th-that's All Folks!" as you can be.