Disheveled dolls made from old socks, twisted yarn and mismatched buttons are unlikely subjects for major portraiture. Yet, the centerpiece of Mike Kelley's current exhibition is just that--a devastating group of 15 portraits of tatty rag dolls.
These homemade effigies, scavenged from neighborhood thrift shops all over town, have been the focus of this protean artist's exceptional work for the last several years. Kelley's show, which Saturday inaugurated the capacious new location of the Rosamund Felsen Gallery (8525 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood, to Nov. 10), is a deft demonstration that he's not letting up.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday October 12, 1990 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 25 Column 4 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
Clarification-- A Wednesday review of works by artist Mike Kelley incorrectly cited the influence of Raymond Pettibon on Kelley's graphic style. In fact, Kelley and Pettibon, working independently, developed related styles roughly simultaneously.
The doll pictures are larger than life. Beautifully painted in black acrylic on white gesso, the tallest is slightly more than 7 feet, the shortest about 2 feet high. Each tattered figure occupies the available, cozy space of its individual panel as if it was the only habitat it could ever convincingly know.
Kelley has been painting with black acrylic on white ground (usually paper) for 10 years now, typically in a notational style that has cared little for conventionally applauded techniques. (The treatment owes a significant debt to the blunt graphics of Raymond Pettibon.) Shunting aside usual ideas of aesthetic quality was part of the point.
But ever since an extensive, 1988 group of perfectly lovely drawings of heaps of garbage, Kelley has been refining his handling of paint. In the new doll paintings, the range of tones, textures and atmosphere, achieved solely through the variegated handling of a single pigment, is remarkable.
For an artist whose past work has ranged from an \o7 hommage\f7 to the "groovy" peace-and-love-abstractions of Sister Corita to the gut-groaning raucousness of joke-printed cocktail napkins, such technical facility might seem to risk a short-circuit. Yet, such deft refinement parallels and underscores the intensely hand-crafted preciousness of the subject: Like the handmade dolls, the pictures were clearly lavished with attention and care. And by sharp contrast, it vivifies an important counterpoint: Despite the common value inherent in hand-work, paintings and rag dolls occupy wholly different aesthetic worlds, one culturally exalted, the other lowly.
As always in Kelley's work, "high" meets and mingles with "low." In the show, there's an explicit example. A child's white cotton blanket is laid on the floor, with unraveled skeins of black yarn strewn across its surface. Baby's nascent (or undone) yarn-doll is thereby visually likened to a celebrated drip-painting by Jackson Pollock. The complex mythology of Abstract Expressionism, long a prominent reference point for Kelley's art, is subtly framed as having played a candidly parental role for American culture. Kelley, born in 1954 at the height of the Ab Ex heyday, is very much its child.
Children, of course, get toys from parents. Kelley's title for the suite of doll paintings--"Empathy Displacement: Humanoid Morphology (Second and Third Remove)"--is a lavish, \o7 faux\f7 -Freudian spin on the way toys, not to mention works of art, are surrogates into which direct engagement with the world is shifted. Made as tokens of caring and affection by "loving hands at home," both are ritualistic fetishes, familial links in a tangled chain of emotional debt.
These strange and tender paintings are extravagant essays in cruelty and pathos. Kelley coaxes forth a disconcerting reading for exalted portraits of trashy dolls. Each may be isolated within the bonds of established cultural hierarchy, yet both are containers for sentimentalized, inescapably poignant feelings of need and satisfaction.
Kelley typically works in pseudo-scientific sets of information, as if conducting an artistic research project. The "humanoid morphology" of the present endeavor seems to go like this: Rag dolls occupy the first remove, their portraits are the second. The third remove appears to be on the floor.
There, at the foot of each panel, rests a rectangular black box. Smaller in size than the panel it accompanies, its proportions match the painting's. On the front near the top, a small door or lid waits to be lifted.
Of course, you don't have to lift the lid to know exactly what is secreted inside each little "coffin." Artists have been laying out corpses beneath paintings of mortal loss at least since the Renaissance. This isn't to say you don't excitedly lift the lid anyway. And that's the kicker. The sight of the actual rag doll's little face, which blindly peers out from the glass-covered doorway, generates a shriek: You knew what you were going to see before you looked, but you still can't quite believe your eyes.