Left to right: Mike Kelley, “Rainbow Coalition” and Richard Prince, “Abstract Threat”

A lot has been written about Mike Kelley since his recent, tragic suicide. The artist has been praised in obituaries lauding his career accomplishments, his exciting rise to prominence in the 1980s and his lasting influence on a generation of younger artists. It would be easy to package the artist’s career with these neat endnotes, to sort him into the cardboard box of history.  However, at the age of 57 Kelley’s life seems far from resolved. In fact, I think 2012 was set to be a rather busy year for him — he was even included in this year’s soon to open Whitney Biennial.

Top to bottom: Richard Prince, “Untitled (publicity)” and Mike Kelley, “Yarn # 3”

The beginning of January marked the opening of Hoodwinked, a two-man show featuring Richard Prince and Mike Kelley at Nyehaus gallery in Chelsea. I had the pleasure of visiting the exhibition several times and the unnerving but positive opportunity to revisit it after the artist’s death, as the gallery extended the exhibition in light of the circumstances.

The exhibition offered a haunting, but ultimately fulfilling peek into the artists contemporary practice. Both artists have embraced practices that mix the trappings of art with culture and cultural commentary. Both came of age and cut their teeth in the early 1980s. What is heartening about this show is that we see these similarities not in a historical context but in the substance of a lively dialogue. We are not subjected to the annals of history but treated to the fresh-faced work of seasoned artists both who have maintained a commitment to looking and learning. Considering the circumstances my return trip felt a bit like walking into an abandoned kitchen to find a fresh baked loaf of bread still warm on the counter.

On the second floor of the gallery early works by both artists pay tribute to the early appropriated photographs of prince, side by side black and white photographs of Kelley’s early performance work. This room forms a sort of baseboard, a record of youth and testament to the importance of both artists.

The exhibition ranges across mediums, weaving together work by both artists in and out of a dialogue marked by sculpture, installation, large scale drawing, painting and photography. Richard Prince’s large, welded metal basketball backboard rests in the middle of the gallery’s main room. The piece is reminiscent more of a dislodged aircraft fuselage or a minimalist sculpture than proper sports paraphernalia. A large scale drawing by Kelley stares back across the open room. Glowing orbs of rainbow color cluster to form a giggling mass of abstraction. Multicolored script read “A glorious sum of rainbow afro wigs.” Kelley’s signature yarn and plush installations serve as a branded mark against the white walls and bare wood of the gallery.

Installation view of various works by (left to right) Mike Kelley Zenith and Nadir Stink, Richard Prince, “The Cure that Is the Prize” and Mike Kelley, “Garbage Bag #2”

“Triple Underground” is comprised of a plush sown knapsack hangs on the wall and it smells familiarly of Kelley’s well-known stuffed animal wall tapestries. There is the same haunting sense of youthful angst, the grim denial of childhood’s idyllic promise. There is something teenage, quirky and hopeful in the knapsack. Kelley’s installation “Yarn #3” spills across the floor in an installation that seems to promise the grinning entrails of domestic craft.

Both artists are masters of personal style, self aware chameleons that write blissfully between the lines of object and image. The exhibition’s title pays homage to the tradition of trickery and the playful ruse. Here is a celebration, not of deadpan irony or cool kid art talk, but of the pleasures that come hand in hand with self awareness. Both artists play with and wink at the conventions and histories of painting and sculpture. Within this tradition — one that the press release notes is passed down from artists like Richard Tuttle — there is a tender sentimentality. This is a tender smile, not easily bought in the headlines of popular culture, but accidentally glimpsed in the twinkle of an eye. Here is a story both silly and meaningful, one of jokes and jabs and knowing glances.

Hoodwinked was originally scheduled to take place from January 12 to 28 at Nyehaus gallery (358 W 20th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan). It was extended to February 24.

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5 replies on “A Visit to Mike Kelley’s Last Show”

  1. It’s a nice review – I like how you drew that distiction between deadpan cool kid irony, and a more whimisical knowing close. It sounds and looks like Mike Kelly grasped how trying to hard can backfire.

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