Flip through any Mike Kelley catalog and you’re likely to find a plethora of images that show the artist to be a maker of videos, installations, and objects that betray what critic Jerry Saltz once described as “clusterfuck aesthetics“. So it may be a surprise to view the relatively straightforward Arenas at Skarstedt Gallery, comprised of seven out of the eleven works from the original series exhibited at Metro Pictures Gallery twenty years ago.
These seven works, all created in 1990, puncture the mythic preciousness for which stuffed animals and handmade baby blankets are renown. Generally, cloth is used by artists for its connection to the body and domesticity, and Kelley manages to bring these associations along while still creating a colder, more antagonistic ambiance. In addition, Kelley also manages, despite the suave white cube setting, to deflate the illusion that art need be urbane or polished.
Arena #10 (Dogs) is one of the most playful and visually-pleasing compositions in the show. On a bright red, orange, and brown striped afghan sit eight stuffed animals that seem to be engaged in a tug of war to divide the centermost animal, a two-headed dog. Most of the other animals are also dogs, but some are silly, ambiguous hybrids like the snake/dachshund/duck concoction or the cheerfully anthropomorphic tomato. Arena #10 is just fun-n-games; yet look at the display for perhaps too long, and you’ll see that some of the dogs’ expressions are not quite right.
In Arena #7 (Bears) five stuffed animals are poised at the perimeter of a satin-edged receiving blanket on the floor: two monkeys, one taupe bear, and twinned golden bears that could be the uglier younger brothers of Pooh. The colors of the animals harmonize with the cream-colored blanket. The animals sit at the edge of the square as though playing Monopoly, or waiting for a referee’s whistle to blow and a game to begin. It is one of the sweeter, more innocuous pieces in the show, but even so, the second-hand blanket is on the floor and the bears and monkeys are bedraggled, adulterating the potential innocence of the scene.
In contrast to #10 and #7, Arena #9 (Blue Bunny) feels stark. A lone light-blue knitted rabbit sits in the center of a grubby light-blue blanket, smiling somewhat sheepishly with arms raised. The ambiguity of the gesture—is this an expression of the victor alone at last on the playing field, or a sign of mommy-pick-me-up dependence?—gives the piece a heightened emotional force.
Arena 5 (E.T’s) is, no pun intended, the most alien. Here, the field is a large goldenrod-colored blanket. At one corner sits a lone alien, facing toward the other actors but solemnly looking down. In the diagonally opposite corner, two cloth E.T. dolls inspect a prone pink humanoid dispassionately. The attitude and position of the dolls and the emptiness of the territory turns a pilled old throw and some fabric toys into a diorama with all the warmth of an operating theater.
It’s a mild case of what anthropologist Mary Douglas called “pollution behavior”: activities likely to cross closely-held boundaries or repudiate cherished designations, like putting boots on the kitchen table or eating spaghetti in bed. In this case, and especially in the context of an urbane Upper East Side gallery, it’s the contact with the floor that evokes pollution. Not just by using obviously worn and recycled objects, but by literally reducing art objects to the level of the floor, Kelley manages to interrogate assumptions about art and also the viewer’s feeling for handmade and beloved objects. Kelley melds the personal, cherished nature of stuffed animals and security blankets and the costly, refined nature of blue-chip art to show us how flimsy the narrative of sacred objects can be.