Situated in a former storage garage in the sleepy suburb of Eagle Rock, CA, you first enter Mike Kelley and Michael Smith's "A Voyage of Growth and Discovery" through a glass door off a busy Colorado Boulevard. That leads directly into a waiting area for what appears to be a child's psychiatrist's office. Unused toys sit quietly on the shelves, waiting to be opened; copies of Parents magazine lie in perfect stacks on the coffee table and a blue-feathered dream catcher occupies the main wall. The effect is more than a little creepy and it immediately forces you to think about the psychological import that has long occupied both artists.
From there you pass by a receptionist and enter through a heavy oak door, which leaves you in a huge, cavernous space that seems to expand before your very eyes. Overhead speakers fill the room with soothing yet strangely threatening sounds of a desert windstorm mixed with layer upon layer of musical undercurrents. Equally curious are the seven, towering, steel sculptures, which were designed by Kelley and placed equidistant around the perimeter. Each seems to suggest an art-historical form, which has been reduced to its basic shape. There's a Fuller-esque, geodesic dome for instance, the rocket ship from Disneyland and perhaps, a Russian Constructivist building. Yet in true Kelleyian fashion, the artist dynamites any serious reading of form by adding psychologically charged, used, plush toys and blankets--a Kelley staple--and turning each sculpture into a playground ride or jungle gym that can be used at any time.
Beyond that is a beat-up VW van with flattened tires (reminiscent of Ed Kienholz's 1964 Back Seat Dodge), standing before a long row of Port-a-Potties. An overstuffed lazy-boy chair made out of more fuzzy-toy animals (a la the Campana Brothers) can be seen in the van's cabin, which seems to be gazing directly at the 30-foot junk/assemblage sculpture across the room. The latter has been fashioned to look like an oversized infant, standing erect with his arm raised in a victory pose (or is that a disco move?)
Personal vision, the vernacular, theatrics, infantilism and art history are exactly what you might expect from Kelley, but it's Smith's hour-and-twenty minute video that ultimately commands the viewer's attention. Displayed on five synchronized screens hung overhead, the video follows Baby Ikki, a character invented by Smith 30 years ago, as he travels in a Winnebago to the annual Burning Man festival in Nevada. Dressed entirely in white baby clothes (bib, bonnet, diapers and pacifier), the 59-year-old Smith bumbles, stumbles and giggles his way through a series of semi-surreal, semi-documentary vignettes: He toys with a lighter after watching a fiery horror scene on the Winnebego's TV; watches strange vehicles and sculptures being built in the desert; cavorts with semi-nude revelers; laughs at a giant, robotic penis as it spits flames; joins the masses as they partake in the festival's penultimate pyre; bounces from one dance tent to the next, and eventually falls asleep in a chill out room.
The general purpose of using a surrogate, as Smith and many of his contemporaries do, including Cindy Sherman, Tracey Rose, Nikki S. Lee, and Joe Gibbons, is to show how subjectivity can be mediated through role models that are enforced, or determined by, various media and pop culture in general. But for Smith, who moved away from painting in the 1970s to explore performance in New York's underground scene (often with Saturday Night Live members in the audience), Baby Ikki is less about specific pop cultural characters and more about the romantic notion of a baby as a blank slate, along with attendant notions of enculturation. In one of his earliest incarnations, which was performed at the University of Michigan 1975 where Kelley was in attendance as an undergrad, Baby Ikki attempted to present a slide show of art-historical images, which included Madonna and Child. (Smith also explored other characters during that performance, including a hobbyist who did magic tricks without any magic to speak of). "I was doing a series of skits that were more like notes," recalls the New York and Austin-based Smith. "With a lot of punning and very simple actions."
Years later he began working with other artists to see where they might take his characters. Or as Smith says, "to see if the characters might evolve differently than if I were performing them for myself." The artist Seth Price, for instance, worked with Smith in 2003 on a piece called Playground, which consisted of Price-designed wooden furniture in the shape of pigs and videos showing Baby Ikki in common outdoor playgrounds and websites designed for adult babies. That piece was shown at Emi Fontana's gallery in Switzerland that same year, which is where Kelley came up with the idea of working with Smith on another Ikki project, which Fontana would curate. "Mike and I have been friends since the '70s," says Smith. "And we've been talking about working together for nearly that long."
They made a failed attempt at collaborating in the 1980s, when they tried to do a live performance via satellite, "where Michael [Smith] was going to perform on the East Coast and Mike [Kelley] on the West Coast," recalls the video curator and long time friend, Carole Ann Klonarides, who was at the Otis Television Network at the time. "But the feed from UCLA's studios didn't upload so it didn't work."
Kelley meanwhile, followed his own path from performance to epically scaled installations, initially through extended collaborations with Tony Oursler and Paul McCarthy. He is perhaps best known for such utterly confounding, genre-mixing multimedia works as Monkey Island (1982-83), Pay for Your Pleasure (1988), and the recent Day is Done (2005-06), which transformed found yearbook photos into a multi-media extravaganza, or as Jerry Saltz wrote: "a pioneering example of cluster-fuck aesthetics" (meaning, a tendency toward overloaded multimedia environments). In the process he has developed a unique voice that routinely explores such "inartistic" themes as the abject, repression, trauma, selective amnesia, and various forms of belief systems. Today, he is considered one the most influential artists of his generation, with a CV that boasts major exhibitions at institutions such as the Whitney, the Hirschhorn, the Tate and the Pompidou. (His last show in hometown of LA was in 2001).
Given the language-based, often obtuse bent of Kelley's work, it might come as a surprise to see a Kelley-Smith pairing. After all, Smith is a far more humorous and accessible performer than Kelley. (Smith even had his own talent show on Cinemax once.) But in fact, both artists complement each other in a number of interesting ways. Kelley has long been interested in using controlled anarchy to break with modernist and formalist conventions. And to do that, he has often used many of the same themes that turn up in Smith's work, namely lowbrow humor, adolescent aesthetics, domesticity, pedagogy, choreography, music and dance. "Both [Kelley and Smith] overlap in a lot of areas," adds Klonarides, who has been working with Smith for over 30 years. "They're both interested in humor, the scatological, the subversive and the subconscious. They're also interested in the idea of the common man, although they approach it quite differently."
Indeed, Kelley has been known to channel his work through the guise of a typically American, blue-collar, somewhat angry, adolescent boy; while Smith has built an entire career out of conveying a hapless character called "Mike," who is more of an "invisible everyman" as Klonarides points out, meaning a middle-class, East Coast nobody who constantly searches for self-improvement via popular trends. Yet no matter how hard he tries or how hopeful he gets, he generally ends up even more puzzled or worse off than before. The effect is generally hilarious and often reflects on the emptiness of urban life. (It's not a coincidence that Smith once tried to get the rights to Arthur Miller's 1949 play, "Death of a Salesman.")
But Smith's work tends to resist traditional narrative conventions and rarely, if ever, offers catharsis or narrative resolution. Nor does it indulge in outright schadenfreude or the grotesqueries of caricature, where Kelley seems to be more comfortable. Rather it tends to operate more like slapstick, where poor, good-intentioned people only succeed by accident, and whose mishaps tend to be the real subject of the work.
With that in mind, one might be inclined to see "A Voyage of Growth and Discovery" as an adventure into regression, where Baby Ikki reflects the same values and subtext of Burning Man and its Dionysian participants--meaning a total embrace of the infantilism of culture at large--the Peter Pan Syndrome run amok. But as Smith explains, "The infantilist thing is not really the most important part of this piece. It's more about the innocence of this character, who's completely naive. And the basic premise of Burning Man is this idea of radical self-expression, so it seemed like an interesting backdrop for an innocent like Baby Ikki."
Yet Burning Man wasn't Kelley's first choice according to Smith. Rather, he hoped to place Baby Ikki at a rave concert instead, which Smith discouraged. But as a festival devoted to neo-hippies, free love, new technologies and new-age idealism, Burning Man became a more interesting choice for both artists. In fact, Kelley and many of his West Coast peers have been tackling similar New Age and/or cult subjects for decades, often as a way of exploring the ideological function of pop culture itself, or "propaganda gone wrong" as Kelley once put it. (Kelley, Jim Shaw, Raymond Pettibon, Tony Oursler, the Kuchar Brothers and more have often made blind devotion a major theme in their work). More recently, artists as diverse as Shana Moulton, Charles Irvin, Brody Condon, and PFFR have been exploring similar territory, often highlighting the bankruptcy of urban spiritualism with great precision. (In fact, PFFR did a brilliant piece about Burning Man in one of its episodes of Xavier: Renegade Angel.)
The size and breadth of Burning Man is so expansive that it occasionally overwhelms both Smith's video and Kelley's sculptures, which are very much props in the Kelleyian sense, where they manifest a certain notion of adult infantilism, failed utopianism and degradation. (One wonders what the video would have been like if Smith and Kelly had invented their own Burning Man.) Nevertheless, the installation is an awe-inspiring work of exceptional scale. What is perhaps most exciting about the piece is that it was produced outside of LA's museum and gallery system proper--it was co-produced by Emi Fontana's West of Rome Public Art and New York's SculptureCenter, and the space has been Kelley's studio since 2008. As such, it follows in line with a rich and important history on the West Coast, a history of alternative spaces, and thus constitutes another step in a real voyage of growth and discovery.
This article was written for and published in art ltd. magazine