This week, Skarstedt Gallery opened a show of Mike Kelley’s shaped paintings at its Chelsea exhibition space, the first time that the artist’s work in this series of egg-shaped, abstracted canvases has been compiled at one time. Taking the artist’s interests in psychoanalytic techniques, trauma, and their intersections with the structures of mainstream American culture, the exhibition offers a close look at Kelley’s interests, juxtaposed through a series of pictorial relationships, or contrasted from work to work in a single room.
The works are an intriguing hint at much of Kelley’s oeuvre, from the sardonic humor directed towards institutional frameworks like educational systems, college fraternities, corporatized holidays, and pop iconography, to his exploration of these images suspended in a broken system of meanings that both undermines their cohesion and emphasizes their position as signs of American ideological hierarchies. Posed as a reworking of the trauma imposed by educational structures, and by the endemic cultural aggression of mainstream culture, the works utilize infantile scrawls and slurs of paint as a counter-force. Through childlike movements recalling finger-painting and other forms of early motor development, the show sees Kelley reworking his subject matter as a way to reclaim their pre-socialized appeal, reduced to differences of color and shape, or to undermine the forces socialization.
Given the depth and conceptual weight of Kelley’s projects, it’s easy to overlook the artist’s fascination with material as a mode of this psychological exploration in conjunction with his subject matter. Much like his fabric-based pieces, Kelley’s modes of practice at Skarstedt always center on the canvas and paint as the modes through which these situations and forces are worked through, and through which his calibration of these images ultimately take their final form.
Considering the range of Mike Kelley’s work over the course of his 30+ year career, the show makes for a unique viewing experience, with so much of the aforementioned subject matter presented in single elements or in passing glances. In the context of Kelleys practice, the works are something of a crystallization of these themes, distilling his repeatedly explored subject matter down into these swirling, occasionally disturbing compositions. For a longtime viewer of the artist’s work, then, the experience is something of a career microcosm, an echo chamber for his broader body of practice in installation, video, and sculpture. His aesthetic and intellectual pursuits surge forth from the show, from punk abjection to subversive abstraction, each time centering back on constructions of the self and the formation of the persona. For the uninitiated, the show is a fitting taste of great things to come from further exploration.
Kelley’s paintings are on view through June 25th.
— D. Creahan
Mike Kelley: Shaped Paintings [Skarstedt]