On ViewHauser & Wirth
Mike Kelley: Timeless Painting
November 12, 2019 – January 25, 2020
“Both a saint and a stain” wrote the artist Jay Heikes, a fellow University of Michigan graduate, of Mike Kelley and his paintings. It was upsetting and exhilarating in equal measure to see a selection of those paintings extracted from the detritus of Kelley’s sprawling artistic career and made to stand for something important in the cold confines of Hauser & Wirth. Separated from the stuffed animals, videos, sculptures, and architectural models that crowded MoMA PS1 a few years ago, Kelley’s paintings become an uncomfortable retrospective, inevitably shadowed by the artist’s suicide in 2012. Kelley’s antipathy to all forms of authority—artistic and otherwise—is on display, but so is a love of painting that, to members of a generation raised on Warhol, TV, junk food, and rock and roll, can only seem a little ridiculous. For example, a giant video project centered on works in the Detroit Institute of Art that inspired Kelley dominates the gallery, and reproduces the combination of attraction and intimidation he must have felt as a young artist.
In its mix of camp irony and transparent confession, the title of the exhibition, Timeless Painting, organized by Jenelle Porter in collaboration with the Mike Kelley Foundation, says it all. The title applies to a particular group of paintings that embody a pivotal episode in Kelley’s career. In the mid–1990s, he returned to painting as if to the primal scene, or perhaps equally, to the scene of a crime, and worked through the antipathy he still felt for the overbearing influence of his university teacher, the painter Hans Hofmann. In the wonderful catalogue for the show, Richard Hawkins narrates an episode in which Kelley savaged a painting by Hofmann in Leonard Nimoy’s living room—revealing, in an angry flash, the unspoken secret: the work of that generation of “timeless” abstract American masters was loaded with bad painting and propped up by dubious theorizing.
In the “Timeless” paintings and those that came immediately after—“The Thirteen Seasons” and a series of oddly shaped works, including some made by finger-painting—Kelley worked out his obsessions, his hostilities, and, although it seems weird to apply the term to Kelley, his repertoire of formal strategies. Like the Hofmann piece he trashed, many of Kelley’s paintings were on wood panels, recalling not the populism of plywood but the supports used for painting in the middle ages. Likewise, the prevalence of an iconographic attitude, whose pop junk symbolism features everything from Bucky Beaver (the Ipana toothpaste avatar) to a deeply unsettling cartoon rendering of Betty and Barney Hill, who claimed to have been abducted by aliens in 1961. These images are mixed with gross color collisions, art informel textures, sexualized body parts, drips, and industrial color swatches that recall both the Bauhaus and Gerhard Richter’s color studies. So much is embraced and sublimated in Kelley’s paintings that the galleries at Hauser & Wirth felt like they were going to explode. It is revealing that Kelley expelled these works at the same time as the internet, a similar, although now immeasurably vast, repository of the world’s unconscious archive, was self-organizing.
As for the sex, it’s tempting to categorize the prevalence of polymorphous perversity in Kelley’s imagery as the product of an enduring adolescence—men’s trouble. But Kelley used sexual motifs in important ways. In late paintings like Exotic Native Genitals (2008–09) it’s not just that the whole apparatus of sexuality is made alien, or that its imagery is everywhere in popular culture. Kelley’s overarching argument is that sex is the source—and problem—of all imaginative activities, including painting. Especially painting. This is not news, but Kelley makes the point with uncommon force. Consider, for example, Untitled 2 (2008–9), one of the latest works in the show. This painting is composed of large panels painted in industrial colors—pieces of architectural interior design—on which hangs a signature shaped painting, vaguely womanly in outline, covered with messy brown streaks and a clownish cartoon lady: some sort of Jetsons-ish creature occupies the place where a womb should be.
On the one hand, such an installation might read as a joke at the expense of bland institutional design. On the other, it suggests that Kelley’s libidinal imagery can function as an unmasking strategy, revealing everywhere the repressive aspects of contemporary culture—this, in spite of its anything-goes marketing. Painting, with its easy illusionism and big-ticket aspirations—it is, after all, the art commodity par excellence—is just as thoroughly implicated in this repressive agenda. And yet, Kelley provides us with sensuous aesthetic experience at every turn: lovely abstract compositions on carpet and black velvet brush shoulders with poignant trompe-l’oeil wood-grain. For 500 years the job of the artist in the West has been to make the most outrageous content legitimate, even valuable. In this exhibition, it is beauty itself that is simultaneously valorized and made scandalous.