The Timeless Mike Kelley at Hauser & Wirth

By Peggy Roalf   Wednesday November 13, 2019

It is no exaggeration—and worth repeating—that Mike Kelley (1954-2012) was one of the most influential artists of the past half century. Scan his CV and you will find that he has had a solo exhibition ever year since 1981—most recently the major retrospective that originated at Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum in 2012; morphed larger to MoMA PS1 in 2013; then went to both locations of LA MoCA, in 2014.

The Detroit-born, Pasadena-based Kelley was a thorn in the side of every layer of American culture. While he railed at the prevailing trends that marked his engagement with art, starting around 1980—notably Minimalism, which he regarded as elitist—he also skewered the lowbrow detritus of his working class roots that formed the bedrock of his practice. While so doing, he elevated those artifacts to the level of sublime dissonance; for example, taking the wood grain of rec room paneling to a similarly exotic level as Braque’s replica chair caning that was the bedrock of his cubist works.  

Working across every possible medium, from performance, to video, to works in the 3D that had never previously qualified as art making, to painting, drawing, collage and printmaking, Kelly was a polymath. Behind the work of those works was a super-educated intelligence that led him to leverage art-historical influences into a noisy dialogue never before heard in galleries and museums around the world. And people listened.

Photo © Dan Bradica for Hauser & Wirth

Now, Hauser & Wirth is presenting a major exhibition centered on Kelley’s work as a painter, which opened last night, in Chelsea. Mike Kelley: Timeless Paintings, was organized by guest curator Jenelle Porter, formerly Senior Curator at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art, and in collaboration with the Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts. The exhibition features paintings from several series created between 1994 and 2009 and takes its title from a series he made in 1995, ten of which are on display.

For the Timeless Paintings (1995), Kelley dug into the attic of his mind to recover pedagogical teachings of his art school days, which he previously rejected as not only irrelevant, but for him, a rare kind of torture. Appropriating Hans Hoffman’s famed “push and pull” theory for creating pictorial depth using warm and cool colors, form and composition, Kelley rationalized a way to bring the art of painting, also previously rejected, back into his practice. The first ten of the series offer a dessert-like sampling of the artist’s insolent wit as his further appropriations, often quite subtle, become evident: such as his borrowing from works by Chagall as well as pop culture figures like Bucky Beaver.

In the next gallery, two large paintings on shaped panels, also from 1995, extend Kelley’s appropriation of Hoffman’s “push-Pull” theory that might cause the elder to spin in his grave. In The Prenatal Mutual Recognition of Betty and Barney Hill, the artist has portrayed the notorious couple, who claimed to have been abducted by aliens, in 1961, in New Hampshire, as youngsters. Mouths agape in horror, positioned on an amoeba-like wooden panel with splotches of earth colors on the background, they are framed by a pair of dog-leg-shaped panels painted in the complementary colors, orange and green, which are literally tacked onto the surface. To uncover Kelley’s reasons for flipping the racial mix of the couple, one need only to re-read the title the piece; why he chose to show the Hills as children is another matter. Whatever. The painting is incredibly fun to look at. 

Left: The Prenatal Mutual Recognition of Betty and Barney Hill, 1995; right: Carpet #2, 2003.

On the opposite wall are five of Kelley’s The Thirteen Seasons (Heavy on the Winter) (1994) series (top of page), painted on oval panels, marked his return to painting following a 15-year span of performance, multimedia and installation art. Deconstructing the canon of modernist color and composition, these paintings manifest Kelley’s psychological road map through images recovered from his memory. Others have written that in this piece Kelley offers a reminder that art belongs to the thirteenth season, of memory, one that is independent of the calendar’s rhythm and preserves its existence throughout time. But it can also be read as an homage to the great 19th-century American still-life masterpieces by William Harnett, at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, which in themselves are appropriated from 17th-century Dutch masterpieces by the likes of Samuel Dirksz van Hoogstraten. Considering Kelley’s voracious curiosity about art and art history, this is not a long shot.

Left: portrait of Mike Kelley by Riccardo Vecchio for The New Yorker, 2012

The Thirteen Seasons sets the stage for Kelley’s radical printmaking practice, represented by four works, each titled Carpet (2003). With these pieces the artist has plumbed the bowels of trailer-trash culture, adopting the type of carpet found in the backs of smelly vans as supports for what are, in fact, giant monoprints. These he made by applying hardware-store paint onto plastic sheets with a scrub brush. He then laid the carpet panels onto the paint and applied pressure. The resulting prints (above right) have a texture and depth of color that could never be achieved by traditional means. 

There is much more to this exhibition, which presents Kelley’s work in both figural and abstract modes. Among these are the Profonndeurs Vertes videos Kelley created for his 2006 show at the Louvre; the large Wood Grain paintings from 2003; the finger painting pieces from 1998; the Missing Time Color Exercises from 1998; and five paintings that celebrate genitalia in various ways in the gallery that opens the show. All told, I came away from this show with a profound appreciation of a protean artist who could draw like the devil.

Mike Kelley: Timeless Paintings continues through January 25, 2020 at Hauser & Wirth. 548 West 22ndStreet, NY, NY Info Don’t miss it. Photos © Peggy Roalf except as noted; more @peggy.roalf
The exhibition is accompanied by an extensive catalog (Hauser & Wirth 2019), with an Introduction by Jenelle Porter and texts by artists who have felt Kelley's influence, including Edgar Arceneaux with Kurt Forman, Carroll Dunham, Daniel Guzmán, Richard Hawkins, Jay Heikes, Jamian Juliano-Villani, Christina Quarles, Mary Reid Kelley, and Laurie Simmons. Info

Editor’s note: The DART Board will resume later this week, with selections from New York and LA.



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