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I wonder what Mike Kelley would think of our contemporary and very online conversation about trauma or self-care or even astrology. Though it’s a public dialogue that is deeply necessary and long overdue, it’s one that was less explicated in Kelley’s era. Specifically, the term “trauma” is misused to the point of satiation. Kelley tiptoed around these themes, though he seemed to despise the associations viewers made between his material choices and what they assumed was unresolved trauma in his life. In a 2000 interview, Kelley told critic Dennis Cooper that the response to his work had changed once he started using craft materials like yarn and felt, saying, “…people really started to free-associate around those materials and to project all sorts of things onto my own biography.”1
In his well-known sculptures, Kelley used thrifted objects to make elaborate surfaces out of plastic kitsch and costume jewelry. This translation of “low” culture to high played out in reverse in Mike Kelley: Timeless Painting, recently on view at Hauser & Wirth’s cavernous Chelsea location. Throughout, paint was just another material for Kelley to make fresh textures and to poke fun at the history of art as much as mainstream culture. The exhibition culled works from 12 on-canvas series created between 1994 and 2009, and inevitably, the curatorial premise claimed to give deeper insight into the role of memory and trauma inherent in Kelley’s work. Kelley’s habit of reusing found materials with prior histories was here applied to painting; he repurposed images from bawdy cartoons, old television shows, and other back page ephemera and then collaged them together to reveal uglier meanings behind collective culture.
The gallery was divided into four maze-like chambers with two sepulchral spaces at the entrance. The first room acted as a key for the exhibition to follow, presenting paintings plucked from each series represented in the exhibition. In the second room was Profondeurs Vertes (2006), an opaque installation originally shown at the Louvre and which features a three-channel video accompanied by looped, melancholic chamber music. The three large screens—each showing close-up images of American paintings in the collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA), each cited by Kelley as an influence—hung just below the ceiling. Lining the opposite wall were seven framed graphite sketches that each reimagined a character from John Singleton Copley’s masterpiece Watson and the Shark (1782), which Kelley saw at DIA as a boy. The dim grotto offered insight into Kelley’s earliest influences—an ode to a zygotic artist, forming before our eyes.
Tucked into the back of the gallery were a handful of picks from his Timeless Painting series (1994–1997). In Timeless Painting #4 (1995), the buck-toothed donkey from the variety show Hee Haw is dressed in drag. In loopy, buttery strokes, the donkey is appointed with Pippi Longstocking’s ketchup- colored hair and a country- humble straw hat with a daisy in its brim. His blue eyeshadow highlights his perfectly set lashes. At the snout, finer lines overlay the softer second layer of paint and the registry is slightly off, a jab at Warhol’s exalted printmaking. Timeless Painting #4 is Kelley at his funniest: juvenile, smart, and a little bit sad.
Nearby were the electric Carpet Painting and Wood Grain Painting series (both 2003). Carpet #8 particularly shines: an old reddish rug is mounted to a wood panel, framed neatly, then brushed over with Kelly green acrylic paint. The result is high art meets radioactive schlock—like barf hit with forensic UV light. Rothko mocked without the redemption of a chapel.
A selection from The Cult Paintings, namely The Prenatal Mutual Recognition of Betty and Barney Hill (1995), hung in an adjacent room. The Hills were an interracial couple and the first Americans involved in a widely-reported alien abduction in 1961. The couple—even after undergoing hypnosis—could never quite convince the public of their traumatic experience. In the painting, Kelley depicts the couple as two floating children’s heads only with their racial identities reversed—here, Barney is white and Betty, black—both with mouths agape in horror. The flatness of the composition makes the couple look poster-like, and the swapping of their races pulls American racial biases into the absurdist experience of abduction. For the rest of their lives, the Hills were treated as test subjects and freaks, which speaks more to the era’s discomfort with interracial couples than the existence of aliens.
For Kelley, trauma was baked into the machinery of the institutions artists like himself stumbled through—systems of inverse elitism whose boundaries must be shoved in order to expand to include outside voices. The jokes about repression were less a ruse than an allusion to systems of abuse that were more insidious in his era, though becoming blindingly obvious in the one we currently inhabit. He needled the link between societal trauma and repressed memories, which makes the art world’s hunt after his ultimate meaning a bit of dramatic irony. Enduringly and in light of suicide, fans and friends alike clamor for resolved insight into Kelley’s personal history where there isn’t any. Of his friend, artist John Miller said that through Kelley’s art history jokes and references to trauma, he “put forward a kind of allegorical institutional critique: the abuse exacted by the institution concerns exclusion and legitimation, nothing less than a matter of symbolic life and death.”2 Kelley rooted around at the rot of American nostalgia and yanked it clean out of its socket, using what he found to point to larger systematic traumas (and perhaps to confront death itself). This selection of paintings from Kelley’s oeuvre composed a better guess at one of his acerbic punchlines—if only he were still around to deliver it.
Angella d’Avignon is a writer in New York by way of California.
This review was originally published in Carla issue 19.