In the 1980s Los Angeles artist Mike Kelley gained fame as a smart-aleck bad boy, tossing off adolescent attacks on adult pieties in a art of teen-age fantasy and soiled plush toys. His sensibility ranged from Nazi submarines and baboon asses to kitschy religious statuary and high school student clubs.
Kelley also put out a book, Catholic Tastes, which punned on being Catholic and being "catholic" -- having broad tastes. As he grows older -- he was born in 1954 -- something is happening. Kelley's rationalist malaise is beginning to convert to an interest in the culture of faith.
In this, Kelley is in step with the baby boom generation, in which return to faith and an interest in the intuitional is ongoing. Kelley's spring exhibition at Metro Pictures showed where he is really at -- resolving, recovering and recreating the culture of faith hidden under his anti-Catholic tastes.
The centerpiece of the exhibition was a recreation of "the wishing well," a local landmark in Los Angeles' Chinatown, which survived into the 1960s but is now abandoned. The sculpture filled the gallery space with a wire-mesh mound covered with a cement surface of peaks and valleys. Inserted into the cement at every point were porcelain statues of Buddha and other holies. The piece is an eyeful, dotted with spray-painted circles in colors ranging from green to yellow to red. It is a beautiful structure, lovingly recreated. Underneath is a mattress covered in a crocheted bedspread that harks back to Kelley's great blanket pieces of the '80s.
In the back room, Kelley devised a scale replica of the fence enclosure surrounding the site, and installed photos of yet another odd religious site. In the small gallery, he provided what amounted to a study room. As if in an experiment, he used the same cement-on-mesh method to make a rectangular wall work that is a kind of a "painting."
A table featured postcards of other grottoes that Kelley has admired: Cathedral Hall, Skyline Caverns, Royal, Va.; Cave Cafe, Sonora, Mex.; the Aquarium in Bell Isle, Mich., as if he were indexing the "formless" allure of such tourist sites.
Kelley also provided a foray into a critique of Asian stereotypes. Film stills of Anna May Wong are somehow related to the wishing well, but take a left turn when Wong is compared, through a similarity of poses, to Tuesday Weld.
This webby (i.e., like a website, showcasing interests and following them every which way) back room provides a peek into a mental life that's a long way from the bad boy of old. I am not sure the art world is going to care for it, but it appears that Mike Kelley is at last shedding the subversive glamour in favor of permanent hippie intensity.