On Mike Kelley’s Timeless Painting
by John Kazanjian
This Fall semester, Ben Fama conducted a trio of masterclasses on Art Writing for students of the MFA in Creative Writing. A component of this series included two site visits to New York galleries. On November 15th, students met at Hauser & Wirth in order to view, discuss, and write about Timeless Painting, an exhibition featuring the work of the late Mike Kelley.
Mike Kelley’s Timeless Painting exhibition is evocative for both its visualizations as well as its careful excisions, and omissions, of space, perspective, and context. It is an exercise in deconstructing meaning and innovating new ways of initiating dialogue between art and the unconscious.
By depicting only portions of images in a series of sketches, he isolates a dramatic and emotional narrative that guides the viewer’s own pathos into a discussion with the perceivable world’s malleable truths. Near the sketches, he projects the original inspiring images in their entirety onto large screens. But where one would expect clarity and objectivity, the projections zoom in, turn, and blur. The resulting effect is unrooted and dreamlike. The sketches of the incomplete images then seem to represent the barely accessible memories of the unconscious experience.
A series of paintings portrays images of nature and elements of human development. There is a snake and donkey. A nearly naked woman stands with piercing eyes. A child’s face is placed above the face of an adult. A furry creature smiles. Each depiction is rendered uncanny and impotent through stylization in the fashion of collage and caricature. This effect removes the accustomed sets of associations these images would otherwise imply. The donkey and snake are rendered cartoon-like with exaggerations and bright color schemes. The child’s face is set angelically, and the adult face below it is mirrored and shaded green, suggesting a lost primary relationship. The naked woman is painted with black lines and appears almost transparently. The furry creature’s face is combined with violently placed lines of paint, combining innocence with chaos. Kelley dulls the cobra’s teeth by exaggerating it, but the result is a more predatory implication of meaninglessness.
In a series of covers for the defunct magazine Sex to Sexty, Kelley displays scenes of human behavior stripped down to base biological motivations. People are shown doing commonplace things through the lenses of blunt sexuality and defecation. Images of people fornicating are flanked by animals doing the same, but anthropomorphized with human anxieties.
Nothing is sacred here. Kelley removes culture’s ethical norms in order to define them as a thin veneer.
The final group of paintings presents sections of textures. They are close views of commonplace materials that a child might see during times of emotional duress, such as a piece of fabric, a patch of carpet, and the grain of a painted door. The world shrinks to a single spot — a desperate search for sanctuary. Trauma and abuse are mentioned as some of Kelley’s themes.
These pieces suggest the heartbreaking default mindfulness of a child in trauma. This is perhaps the starting point from which the exhibition posits the notion that truth lies not in the uncovering of hidden things, but in the hiding itself.
John Kazanjian is a New York based writer. He is currently earning his MFA in Creative Writing at The New School. His work has appeared in the journal JMWW. Find him on twitter: @johnkazanjian.