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Review: A Mike Kelley sculpture makes its West Coast debut

November 08, 2012|By Christopher Knight | Los Angeles Times Art Critic
  • Plush toys and giant air fresheners make a secular chapel in Mike Kelley's "Deodorized Central Mass with Satellites" (1991-99)
Plush toys and giant air fresheners make a secular chapel in Mike Kelley's… (Perry Rubenstein Gallery )

In "Deodorized Central Mass with Satellites" (1991-99), an exceptional installation sculpture made from untidy clusters of plush toys suspended from the ceiling and sleekly lacquered reliefs attached to surrounding walls, the only element that stands on the floor is the viewer. Los Angeles artist Mike Kelley (1954-2012) had a way with upending expectations, and manipulating audiences into his artistic projects was a common gambit.

The sculpture, shown in earlier and slightly different iterations in several European venues, is having its West Coast debut at Perry Rubenstein Gallery. Here, a dozen monochrome plush-toy spheres, linked by a system of cables and pulleys across the ceiling, orbit around a central, rainbow-colored blob. Ten large, geometrically faceted, brightly colored wall-reliefs are actually monumental dispensers of pine-scented air freshener, which automatically send their cleansing spray into the room at timed intervals.

In addition to being crazy-funny, the sculpture takes on the serious subject of faith. The plush toys are talismans for familial love -- anthropomorphic objects given by adults to children, who use them as surrogates for human intimacy. The giant air fresheners speak of a uniquely modern striving to keep life's messiness at bay.

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Kelley often employed soft, tangled toys as a satirical metaphor for Expressionist art. The pristine geometries of his crystalline wall reliefs lampoon 1960s Minimalism, which emerged from an urge to sweep away the emotional and spiritual mythologies of 1950s Abstract Expressionism. Kelley further stirs the pot with a dose of science (or maybe science fiction), encircling the heavenly galaxy of fuzzy orbs with rocket-shaped playthings.

That the heaven-sozzled gallery also suggests a Gothic chapel lined with glorious stained-glass windows is no accident. As its title declares, "Deodorized Central Mass with Satellites" enacts a secular version of the ritual cleansing of Sunday Mass. In Kelley's gifted hands, we engage a ceremonial space that is hapless, helpless and finally poignant.

Perry Rubenstein Gallery, 1215 N. Highland Ave., Hollywood, (323) 464-1097, through Dec. 15. Closed Sun. and Mon. www.perryrubenstein.com

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