Games Of Deferral: Mike Kelly’s Thirteen Seasons
The sardonic gestalt of Mike Kelley enamors all strata of the hazy art-world. In this solo-exhibition presented at Skarstedt’s Chelsea space, Kelley’s ‘shaped paintings’ and excerpts from his Thirteen Seasons series appear together more than twenty years later. In the conventional space—complete with a perpetually orthostatic ‘security’ guard occasionally asking visitors to step away from the works—hang nine of Kelley’s paintings spanning five years from 1990 – 1995.
Two paintings from 1990, Snowflake (center and peripheries #3) and Center and Peripheries #2, present figurative illustrations, stuffed toy animals, and the precarious garbage bag on separate panels—rendered in flat black acrylic ink—connected by thin wooden struts pointing outwards from a white, rectangular panel, left blank. These two paintings speak to Kelley’s understanding of the associative properties of an idea or concept as the determining force that imbue them connotatively, culturally, or visually as opposed to their fixed denotation.
That format seems to be indicative of a tension between linguistic and visual forms, a la Bataille, which Kelley has explained was where his interest in sculpture initially came from. He said that he had an interest in the “real” materials applicable in sculpture, whereas painting was difficult for him because he was more concerned with historical questions rather than material considerations. In other words, he privileged content over form. That said, one could look at the other seven paintings in the show and see a sort of satirical mimicry. Painterly gestures turn into amateur finger painting that laud the hangover of Hoffmanesque expressionism, prevalent during Kelley’s term as an undergraduate student in the early 1970s.
In the paintings from Kelley’s Thirteen Seasons, ubiquitous symbols from late twentieth century Americana (as well as his own childhood) turn menacing. Jack-o-lanterns, candy-canes, and otherwise hackneyed general ornaments shed their veneer, revealing more sinister undertones bubbling up alongside Kelley’s satirical jab at painting’s machismo in The Thirteen Seasons (Heavy on the Winter) #7: The Descent. His resistance to the rectangular form in Snowflake (center and peripheries #3) and Center and Peripheries #2 mocks painting’s droll status quo.
In the show, five paintings are oval while two others are refreshingly organic, that of a high-school notebook doodle. Untwisted Cross, an amorphous panel, posits a skull with unkempt blonde hair flanked by a ‘MOM & DAD’ banner atop a swastika with its four points covered by rectangular panels of varying shape and color, reminiscent of Hoffman. All of these shapes, symbols and text sit on top of fluorescent pink and green spray-paint blotches calling to mind eras of political urgency and public flippancy that have come to be farcical and far-removed. And while the entirety of Kelley’s Thirteen Seasons isn’t presented in this show, the present works are evocative of his uncanny ability to make our beloved Santa Claus just as disconcerting as a playful grim reaper.
Kelley’s post-modern cynicism, humor, and despondent outlook are missed today, but his quips and gags are still here—in the work of course. He demonstrated the powerful effect humor can have in making a poignant point about otherwise grim subjects, sidestepping the low-lying academicism that permeates the contemporary art world, which is particularly refreshing today. While some look at his work with complacent awe or ambivalence, his work is undoubtedly a pillar in the annals of discursive art practice, one that should not be taken lightly but also not without a chuckle. Mike Kelley isn’t your amicable class-clown, but a volatile jester who reveals what we shy away from but are compelled to see.