Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Mike Kelley - Reconstructed History

In a late 80’s high school yearbook jacket, Kelley has assembled a collection of grotesquely defaced iconic Americana. These typical images from tedious American history books have been enhanced with comic texts and sexual organs egregiously left out of the history lesson. Kelley writes in his introduction, "Heroic textbook illustrations should be thought of as teaching aids, and the defacement of them as proper scholastic exercises."

Mike Kelley's Reconstructed History is a collection of idealized images of a shared American heritage culled from scholastic textbooks. Found and presumably randomly defaced by grade-school students, then bound in the form of a high-school yearbook. Kelley adjoins illustration and grotesquery at the deliberate expense of historical specificity, and renders a timely portrait of American values. Reconstructed History includes reproductions of photographs, engravings and cartoons, as well as written text by the author which informs and provokes questions about the use of reconstructed narratives to illuminate the past. Investigating the tension between the tarnished and the exalted, Kelley shows us how, in his own words, "heroic images thrive on subtraction." 

Even my library is defaced by Mike Kelley. Hanging there is one of the hilarious 1989 “Reconstructed History” vandalisms—a real history text book that Mike defaced with glee, the same thing all of us who were bored in high school wanted to do in reaction to teachers who didn’t challenge us or discouraged our rabid interests. Our boredom turned to anger and then to rage and if we were lucky, then to art. “Barf” adds Mike to the patriotic “Signing of the Declaration of Independence” illustration and now, on the 4th of July, I can finally feel patriotic thanks to Mike Kelley’s troublemaking defiant reinvention of this school book.
John Waters

I saw Mike Kelley’s “Reconstructed History” as part of his show at the ICA in London and had a shock of recognition – not so much of the form (though it was, indeed, a heavily –’childishly’– vandalized set of historical prints), but of the voice. Shot through this work and the rest of the show and catalogue was this perfect, brittle voice of defiance. It was a voice that flipped the authority of its targets with a hilarious economy of effort, where earnest cross-hatches were countered with quick strokes and crude phrases – though never more than enough. It was very funny of course, though along with the rest of the work in the show it made me think of the title of the then current Alice Donut album – “Revenge fantasies of the impotent”. There was a deeper melancholy there. “Decay is inevitable,” suggested the work – “Spare us the ‘nobility’ bullshit in the meantime…”
Graham Parker


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