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A video portrait's odd inspiration

January 20, 2007|Paul Young | Special to The Times

Random yearbook photographs from thrift stores and swap meets were the inspiration for artist Mike Kelley's first "musical," a 150-minute video featuring dance routines, talent shows and other high school extracurricular activities. But Kelley's video portrait of a suburban institution is anything but ordinary. It's full of dancing goths, singing rednecks, religious zealots, wandering wizards and gloomy vampires.

"The whole thing was really an excuse to work with words and music again," Kelley, 53, says from his Highland Park studio. "In a way, I was going back to my earlier performative work."

Art professor John C. Welchman of UC San Diego calls the work, titled "Day Is Done" and screening at REDCAT on Monday and Tuesday, a "unique and compelling vision of popular Americana -- it's simultaneously plausible, ironic and fantastic, but without being condescending or pedantic."

It's also more of a collage than a typical narrative film. Each of the video's 31 sequences began with a found image, a youth in a Halloween costume, for example, which Kelley reproduced in terms of clothing, makeup and background. "To create scenes, I would simply look at the photo and try to imagine what kind of music or text would be appropriate or not appropriate for what was going on," says Kelley, who worked with musicians Scott Benzel, Mayo Thompson and Korel Tunador, as well as choreographer Kate Foley. "So it started as pure projection but became almost a game."

A photograph of a young girl in goth makeup and hooded robe, for example, became a high school talent show in which a young woman takes the stage in an identical outfit, announces that she has no talent to speak of, then launches into a ballad about her love, Satan, "the father of flaws."

It's a heady mix that nonetheless can feel giddy.

"I wanted to do a Broadway-style show for New York," Kelley says, "because the New York art world never talks about Broadway and yet they put down the West Coast because of the film industry. So I wanted to revel in this absolutely un-hip aesthetic."

"Day Is Done" had its first incarnation as an installation for New York's Gagosian Gallery, where it opened in December 2005. For that show, Kelley constructed 28 stations within Gagosian's cavernous space to display the same video sequences but in concert with props and sculptures. Computer programs and switchers synchronized the videos to play as viewers navigated the space.

After the show closed, the installation was sectioned off and sold to collectors, including Eli Broad, who bought "Gym Interior" (2005).

It wasn't until then that Kelley decided to compile the disparate video elements into a whole: "It really became an experiment in doing something with montage, taking this material and cross-cutting it and doing something more filmic."

Hollywood films, including Ed Wood's kitsch-horror-musical "Orgy of the Dead" (1965) and Robert Altman's "Nashville" (1975), provided bits of inspiration. "I'm not a fan of Altman," Kelley says, "but what I like about that film is that you can tell quite clearly, throughout the entire film, that he absolutely hates country music. So that was an inspiration in terms of being completely negational."

Andrew Lambert, film archivist and programmer at Anthology Film Archives in New York, sees a connection between Kelley's video and experimental works by such filmmakers as Jack Smith: "But whereas Jack strived to re-create a Technicolor B movie utopia that was uniquely his, Mike uses high school, which is a much more universal experience."

"Day Is Done" brings together themes found in much of Kelley's work -- repressed memory, popular culture, issues of authority and transgression -- whether in performance, installation, video, drawing, painting or sculpture. Yet Welchman, who will lecture on the artist at the Hammer Museum next month, says the video goes further to tease out an authentic representation of the American psyche. "I'm fascinated by the way that Mike has uncovered some of the structures, prejudices and organizing principles of the American conceptual vernacular," Welchman says.

The work follows a conceptual line back to Kelley's "Educational Complex" (1995), a sculptural piece that includes replicas of every school the Detroit-born artist attended. "That piece was a key transitional work," Welchman says, "in that it had to do with both repressed memories and the practice of projecting onto things that are willfully recalled."

The new video can be seen as a result of Kelley's entire body of work, Welchman says. It's still fantasy, and it still dwells in the theater of the ridiculous, but "it encompasses an extraordinary amount of research, which is typical of Kelley. But he went for broke on this show. This is his blockbuster."


`Day Is Done'

Where: REDCAT, 631 W. 2nd St., Los Angeles

When: 8 p.m. Monday and Tuesday (Monday sold out)

Price: $4 to $8

Contact: (213) 237-2800;


What: Professor John Welchman of UC San Diego lectures at 7 p.m. Feb. 13, Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd.; (310) 443-7000;

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