Tony Matelli - Sleepwalker, 1997
Michael "Mike" Kelley (27 October 1954 – 31 January 2012) was an American artist. His work involved found objects, textile banners, drawings, assemblage, collage, performance and video. Writing in The New York Times, in 2012, Holland Cotter described the artist as "one of the most influential American artists of the past quarter century and a pungent commentator on American class, popular culture and youthful rebellion."
In the Uncanny Kelley acts as a curator, a 'film director' of sorts, overseeing the historical presentation of a substantial number of polychrome figurative sculptures. Different ways of representing the figurative are related to each other; this includes non-art objects such as ancient Egyptian grave furnishings, figures used for rituals, cults, and religious worship, anatomical models, wax figures, objects taken from popular art, stuffed animals, as well as contemporary hyperrealistic sculptures. The show features contemporary artists such as Paul McCarthy, Judy Fox, Tony Matelli, Ron Mueck, Paul Thek, Tony Oursler, and many others. The spectacular section of sculptures is complemented by Mike Kelley’s own collection The Harems. These consist of 15 different object types which the artist associates with his childhood and adolescence, ranging from marbles and squeezy toys to hundreds of bubble gum cards, postcards, record covers, magazines, and found church banners. The Harems comprises objects typical of our consumer societies, and it is by accumulating and standardizing their presentation that their 'uncanny aura' is disclosed. Some of the objects on display, taken from various subcultures or fields of science, are quite spooky, and in connection with morbid and macabre artworks they tap into the potential of the uncanny, haunting our artistic aestheticism with dark secrets.
Dieter Roth - Portrait of the Artist as Bird-Seed Bust, 1968
Taking its cue from the resurgence of figurative sculpture in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and from Sigmund Freud’s essay ‘The Uncanny’ (1919), the exhibition brings together mannequin-related art works, mostly from the 1960s onwards, with objects from disparate cultural contexts that engender a similar sense of unease in the viewer: medical dolls, anatomical waxworks, religious statues, pagan figurines, ventriloquists’ dummies, sex dolls, taxidermy and so on. These are joined by photographs that illustrate objects and art works that couldn’t be loaned (Francisco de Goya’s Straw Dummy from 1791-2 or Oskar Kokoschka’s life-size fetish doll that acted as his mistress), that document bizarre incidents (‘an accidental suicide during auto-erotic stimulation’) or that have an impact as physically intense as the sculpture (Hans Bellmer’s Poupée from 1935, and Cindy Sherman’s ‘Sex’ pictures from 1992).
Kelley attributes the lifelikeness of the diverse vernacular objects in ‘The Uncanny’ to the fact that many once acted as doubles for actual human bodies: sexual partners (fetishistic dolls), Catholic saints (religious statues), film actors (stand-ins used in violent scenes), dissected corpses (anatomical wax models) and servants who would otherwise have been put to death in order to wait on an important person in the afterlife (Egyptian figurines and the ‘terracotta army’). As such, they dimly recall taboos that have been individually or collectively repressed: perversion, idolatry, grizzly violence, human sacrifice, mortality in general and the Oedipal drama. Hence our discomfort.
It is important to me, first of all, that the objects displayed maintain their physical presence, that they hold their own power in relation to the viewer. I decided, therefore, to exclude miniatures–smaller than life-size statues, dolls, toys, figurines, and the like–from the exhibition. Generally, I believe that small figurative objects invite the viewer to project onto them. By this, I mean that the viewer gets lost in these objects, and that in the process of projecting mental scenarios onto them they lose sense of themselves physically. The experience of playing with dolls is a case in point. The doll becomes simply an object to provoke daydreams, and its objecthood fades into the background. Once the fantasy is operating, it could be replaced by any other object. On the other hand, I am interested in objects with which the viewer empathizes in a human way–though only as long as the viewer, and the object viewed, maintain their sense of being there physically.
The disposability of the venerated substitute has modern correlatives [...] Then there are whole classes of figures designed specifically to be destroyed in use: car-crash dummies, the effigies of hated political figures hung and burned at demonstrations, the mannequins that people the perimeters of nuclear test sites, and the electrified human decoys recently used in India to shock man-eating tigers into losing their taste for human flesh. In a way, all these figures ask to be mistreated. The iconoclast, the one who feels compelled to destroy images, knows: statues invite violence. Like the vampire, they desire a violent death to relieve them of the viewer-projected pathos of their pseudo-life.
Kelley's intention is not just to collide high culture and low, or sacred and profane, or even good art and bad, or art and other kinds of objects. He has arranged all this stuff as a giant warehouse tableau, as though it all existed as an inventory in the mind of an insane collector. I sense a deep, and perhaps deliberate confusion here, not only in the flouting of categories, and Kelley's piecemeal borrowing of such a disparate collection of art and artifacts. Is The Uncanny a Mike Kelley show, or a show curated - straightfaced - by Mike Kelley? Is the artist switching roles and playing curator, or is his curatorship itself a guise, and the premise of the exhibition itself a kind of fiction? Should we regard the show's catalogue, with its footnote-laden essays (including Kelley's original 1993 essay, and a new introduction by himself), and its trudge through psychoanalytic literature, as evidence of dispassionate research, or a further level of Kelley's artistic meta-fiction, another trapdoor into Kelley's world? He is a sly artist at the best of times.