revisions & new editions

mike kelley: reversals, recyclings, completions and late editions / paul mccarthy: clean thoughts

Retrieving 'lost' memories and artworks was a central theme to 'Clean Thoughts' and 'Reversals, Recyclings, Completions and Late Editions', two exhibitions held in New York during late 2002. Although surveys, both exhibitions indulged in some selective revision on behalf of artists Paul McCarthy and Mike Kelley, and the results were surprising. These shows drew out the distinct differences of the two mid-career Californians from many other so-called 'shock/schlock' contemporary artists. While McCarthy and Kelley have collaborated since the late 1980s, central to their pursuit of new independent work was the repetition and, to an extent, failure of some pieces produced during the 1990s. The difficulty in approaching the content of the exhibitions came with their 'survey' or revisionist nature: minimal information was given to the viewer, but then the viewer was not us, but rather McCarthy and Kelley revising their own histories. As McCarthy states 'usually it's about me, I'm the viewer'.1

McCarthy's 'Clean Thoughts' at Luhring Augustine Gallery, included works the artist had stored for several years, and only recently completed. Drawing upon his appropriation of Jeff Koons' 1988 ceramic piece, Michael Jackson and Bubbles, McCarthy cluttered the first room with versions of his own tribute to Koons. The impetus for McCarthy's new works was the re-surfacing of a 1999 sculpture that overtly exaggerated the head, hands and feet of a Koons-inspired Jackson and chimp companion. In the recent exhibition, a C-print mounted on Plexiglas, Michael Jackson Red, was evidence of McCarthy's original work and was surrounded by larger-than-life bronze, steel and fibreglass versions, each more absurd than the next. Propped upon cases reminiscent of caskets or storage crates, slightly different works from the 'Michael Jackson' series, Fucked Up (fibreglass plug), Big Head (bronze) and Fucked up (silicon), sported enormous globe-like heads upon thin beams.

In the adjoining rooms of 'Clean Thoughts' were McCarthy's experiments with coloured silicon rubber - new characters based on cartoon pirates and Santa Claus guarded the doorways. Absurd and disfigured personalities, Shit face and Dick Eye, featured gashed faces and appendages gaping from eye sockets. Santa (with butt plug), cast in green silicon, was a stand-alone character and held a bell in one hand while presenting a butt plug in the other, with a jolly smile. This particular work is a maquette for McCarthy's current commission to produce, in the city of Rotterdam, a twenty-five foot scaled monument on the same theme. For McCarthy, Santa Claus represents 'the God of modern consumption'2, and is similar to Koons' Puppy (installed outside the equally ornate Guggenheim Bilbao) in being in the sickly embrace of Disney-culture figures. Some might concede that Jackson is the Disney character of our own generation. Amongst the psychotic fantasy of McCarthy's exhibition, Peter, Paul (2001-02), a self-portrait cast of the artist appeared as a gesture towards asserting self-identity, or else to remember the 'individual' amongst all of these saleable, 'pure' characters of Hollywood.

Nearby, at Metro Pictures, Mike Kelley's exhibition of recent installation and sculptural works, like McCarthy's show, searched through a backlog of artworks. However, Kelley's project did not represent the larger social perversions of his Californian surroundings, but expressed the dysfunction of personal memory and aesthetic history. Components of this exhibition were based largely upon Kelley's architectural installation Educational Complex, which was exhibited at Metro Pictures in 1995. The new version revisits various floor plans and sketches from the initial work to pursue the artist's ongoing interest in 'repressed memory syndrome'. This psychological model is personalised through Kelley's attempt to map every architectural space of the various schools he attended as a child. In the original installation, the artist replaced the areas he had forgotten with standard blocks, while those he remembered were, in a way, distorted. In Kelley's opinion, the clarity of the remembered spaces is 'too perfect, the scenes are too staged to be real'.3 Furthermore, 'recovered memories are oftentimes wish fulfilment ... the past is actually a screen memory, a construction of present desires.'4

In 2002, the two-dimensional remnants of Kelley's 1995 work were mounted and structured into cubicles, reminding one of designated library study areas or office spaces. The spaces he remembers were adorned with anecdotal 'recovered memories' of acts that took place within them, so that the project confronted the failure of the ambitious Educational Complex of 1995. In an adjoining room, three-dimensional suspended mobiles were hung as anonymous building-like structures, echoing the forgotten 'blocks' of experiences of his original version.

Kelley continued the reference to 'recycling ' artworks with new components of his junk art Memory Ware series. Initiated in 2000, recent works from the series featured wall-mounted panels imbedded with costume jewellery, trinkets and buttons, referencing the folk tradition of decorating vases and frames. Kelley speaks for common memories in raising these 'craft' forms to 'art'. In another room, a large-scale velvet-lined 'jewellery case' exhibited more of the desired yet forgotten jewels. These discarded items were arranged in a continuous line that formed vigorous connections within the confinement of the case.

These new exhibitions of McCarthy's and Kelley's work affirm that, for both artists, creative endeavours do not exist independently from memories and older projects. Highlighted by the 'survey' style of 'Clean Thoughts' and 'Reversals, Recyclings...', was the inherent failure of memory and of aspirations. Indeed, from these two exhibitions one saw that the unresolved components of certain art projects have become necessary for the progression and development of the artists' ideas.


Paul McCarthy: Clean Thoughts

Luhring Augustine Gallery, New York (5 October- 2 November 2002)

Mike Kelley: Reversals, Recyclings, Completions and Late Editions

Metro Pictures, New York (2 November- 7 December 2002)


1. Paul McCarthy interviewed by Grady Turner, 'Paul McCarthy', Flash Art, MarchiApril 2001 , p.91 .

2. Paul McCarthy in Mark Sanders, 'Paul McCarthy', Another Magazine for Men and Women, Fall/Winter 2002, p.413.

3. Mike Kelley, 'Repressed architectural memory replaced with psychic reality', Architecture New York, no.15, 1996, p.39.

4. Mike Kelley, Ibid