Mike Kelley at Gagosian Gallery, Beverly Hills

Mike Kelley at Gagosian Gallery, Beverly Hills

January 11-February 14, 2011

You have to be ready for almost anything when you enter a Mike Kelley show:  a more or less conventional gallery view of objects or documents; a maze, matrix or mosaic of seemingly found or reconfigured objects; or an immersive multi-media experience of sculptural installations, with or without video or performance.  Kelley’s show at the Gagosian Gallery in Beverly Hills — even more expansive than its double-compound title — was all of these things, and what felt like a post-mortem, too.  

For those unfamiliar with the Superman mythology, Kandor was the home city of the child Superman and his parents, who the adult Superman rescued from the doomed planet Krypton and preserved in miniaturized form in a vacuum bottle infused with an artificial atmosphere fed and refreshed by a tank of compressed gases. The appeal of the motive (and its disparate comic-book renderings) to Kelley is obvious: its trauma or projected traumas and implicit “repressions,” nostalgia; the uncertainty and ambiguity of memory, its corruption or adulteration, and its reconstruction, reconfiguration or simply re-imagination; parallel to this, the corruption of empire and its residue; and many opportunities for thematic cross-fertilization within this mesh of cultural and psychological strands.  

The first walk-through of almost any Mike Kelley show can feel a bit like a scavenger hunt. So it was at Gagosian, although visitors to the gallery were made immediately aware of the show’s immersive aspect as soon as they opened the gallery door to a pinball cacophony of sound and stepped into the dimly lit gallery. A small pile of rolled-up rugs pushed against the rear panel of one “room” of the main gallery was immediately followed by an archway through the panel revealing a shallow stage or platform painted in camouflage swirls executed in a fire-color palette, with a mannequin standing just beyond it.  In the meantime, giggles and light screams pealed across the gallery spaces, overlaid with bells, chimes, hissing, rattling, and eerie echoes and reverberations.  At least one source appeared to be the video projection a few feet away. A shimmer of iridescent silk drapery (also in a fiery palette) on a tall stand set off to an angle led the way to a pile of pillows and bolsters on which the viewer might recline to take in the video.  

The video performance was familiar Kelley territory in Greek (or maybe Roman or Oriental) geek guise — a college seraglio.  This was the Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstruction #34 — a pair of companion skits in neat reversal (“The King and Us” / “The Queens and Me”).  In the first, a dark, modish lout in brown cloak and pink toga sulks and gnaws petulantly at a mutton leg (or something) while his entourage of harem ladies recline about in silk and satin sarongs, tunics and veils, coyly competing for the boy’s attention.  The boy alternately spurns, ignores, or rewards their attentions and ignites their rivalries.  In the companion skit, the boy — in the same costume, but clearly servile — enters with a flagon of wine or coffee to serve his “queens” and is himself ignored or teased and mocked. A second monitor and seating between the rear gallery and the new main gallery south facilitated viewing of the loopy skits.  It’s something of an homage to Jack Smith — with the set’s bejeweled look and trays of pearls, beads and trinkets flung about; but Kelley doesn’t try to take it any further than his amateur cast can manage.
Before even arriving at the first and seemingly most important of the Kandor installations, it was impossible not to be distracted by the lifelike mannequin in front of the platform (which figured as a set in the videos) — to all appearances of Colonel Sanders, founder and eternal pitchman of the KFC chicken empire — inclined over a veiled lectern or pedestal, as if in readiness to pitch his latest chicken recipe. Less clear was what Kelley was “pitching” here. “Kandor 10A” was enshrined in a grotto of what looked like molded asphalt or volcanic residue (actually foam coated with Elastomer). 

Here, on another mound of “asphalt,” a “city” of pale yellow opalescent crystal “towers” (tinted urethane resin) clustered beneath a large glass dome connected to a tall lavender compressed gas tank standing beside it — the whole reflected against a green metal “control panel” or prop cabinet.  A pair of male under-briefs appeared discarded to one side, introducing a suggestion of masturbatory fantasy.
In the rear gallery, “Kandor” exploded into a vari-colored “City 04” — a still more oriental-looking mass of crystal elements (in resin) that from certain angles had the look of perfume bottles and cosmetic jars massed over a vanity table. A wooden stairway wrapped around the “asphalt” mound to a platform that offered a better view of the emerald, ruby, topaz, sapphire, etc. “City.” Pretty — and prettier still when viewed from the clerestory window en route to the upper level gallery.

There were other objects — kitsch, generic and bejeweled — both in this gallery and upstairs, all seated on their asphalt foam/Elastomer plinths; and many more iterations of the “Kandor” motive (or “Cities”) in variously colored resins — that did little to expand or elaborate its possible meanings. “Cat Head” looked like a found object — the sort of pail or container that might be used by a child for Halloween treats — but there were also generic Florence flasks on the same mound. Lab equipment for the clinical witch? Her dwarves — or gnomes — were obviously hard at some work in “Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstruction #35” — a purple-tinted photographic lenticular representation of which hung here.  In the new south main gallery, in the setting of their workshop, the “Dour Gnomes” could be viewed lumbering determinedly around a workbench – apparently forging their own demise as well as Kandor’s, which appeared ultimately to be vaporized in the video projection at the rear of the set. A snake of flattened plush remnants of their bodies, or at least their gray suits and pointed hats, coiled around cases of Corona beer in “Mexican Blind Cave Worm.”

The kitsch and Kandors upstairs were eclipsed by “Odalisque” — what appeared to be an asphalt- (foam-) covered mummy, the face hollowed out of its skull, with soot-drenched flowing hair resting on a divan or catafalque. A glass canister holding manacles or restraints was visible at the foot of the divan.

Which brings us back to Colonel Sanders (which was not even on the gallery’s checklist).  His pedestal was actually a partially veiled Plexiglas box — containing yet another set and figure — miniaturized, but recognizably Sigmund Freud. That pairing raises questions about the uses of mythology — more specifically, mythologies of aspiration, their intersection with the algebra of need, and their susceptibility to distortion and manipulation.  Col. Sanders’ product was greasy, crumb-laden chicken, the appeal of which is inevitably diminished in the wake of its potentially pathological sequelae.  Without attempting to confine Kelley’s multi-valent mosaic to a singular interpretation, it was difficult to “escape” from the “Kandors” and their variously associated or dissociated “EAPRs” without sensing a similar pattern of ingestions and evacuations — and their ultimate pathology and futility.