Art review: Michael Smith & Mike Kelley @ West of Rome


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Baby Ikki is more than 30 years old, but he retains a childlike, Swee’ Pea innocence, just like his animated cartoon forebear from Popeye’s ‘Thimble Theater.’ Hairy legs emerging from pristine white diapers and five o’clock shadow around a pacifier protruding from his mouth, Ikki offers obliquely mature assurance that he’ll survive whatever slings and arrows of outrageous fortune are thrown his way.

In a sprawling, sometimes stupefying warehouse exhibition in Eagle Rock, a collision between feigned innocence and hare-brained Utopianism is stark and destabilizing. Six video projections show Baby Ikki wandering wide-eyed through the six-day madhouse that is the annual Burning Man festival in the Black Rock desert of northwest Nevada. Since New York performance artist Michael Smith has been doing his Ikki-schtick for more than three decades, the deadpan openness of the overgrown infant’s exploratory excursions never falters, whatever the chaos.


An exceptional collaboration with L.A.artist Mike Kelley, ‘A Voyage of Growth and Discovery’ was born of a chance encounter in Italy five or six years ago, although the two artists have known one another for years. The gallery West of Rome, which has recently switched from a peripatetic commercial venue into a nonprofit presenter of public projects, has commandeered Kelley’s expansive studio in a former storage building for the mixed-media extravaganza.
Rarely is satire so marvelous and bug-eyed. Rather like Samuel Butler’s ‘Erewhon’ a century ago, ‘A Voyage of Growth and Discovery’ is a sharp stick in the eye of the Calvinist moral hangover of American Victorianism, which we still stumble through today.

Amid seven sculptural constructions, including a giant Ikki totem assembled from trash, the six screens are suspended in a circle just overhead, like video thought-bubbles. Aluminum open-frame sculptures recall monkey bars and other playground equipment. These are stylistically crossed with idealized forms from Modern art history -- a squat, Buckminster Fuller-style geodesic dome, say, or a Constructivist information tower by the likes of the Russian avant-garde’s Gustav Klucis or Stenberg brothers. A tall, ladder-like rocket ship looks like salvage from 1950s Disneyland. The artists’ constructed environment is less pastoral ‘Walden’ than ‘The Happiest Place on Earth’ -- a fictional environment shot through with yearning and disappointment. All the sculptures are adorned with familiar Kelley attributes -- handmade quilts, a ‘granny dress’ redolent of 1960s peace-and-love and stuffed animals like those adults give to kids as tokens of sublimated affection.

Suspended from the rocket is a linked chain of plush toys that recalls Kelley’s classic 1987 sculpture, ‘Kundalini and Chakra Set.’ Childhood innocence is infused with an adult Tantric image of free-love. Fly me to the moon, indeed.

Nearby, a rusted VW micro-bus with the side-door open is parked in front of a row of 10 portable toilets. Inside, a throne upholstered with filthy plush-toys curdles any romantic ambiance of open-hearted innocence. As at most carnivals, the atmosphere feels creepy. No wonder the van has four flat tires.
Footage of Baby Ikki at the Burning Man festival slides back and forth between the broken-down cheesiness of blinding, desert daylight and the tribal orgy of darkness, where fire-twirlers compete with strippers and a monumental sculpture representing modern man is set ablaze. Apocalyptic sound from the video becomes hysterical and deafening, a quintessential primal scream signifying nightmares as much as ecstatic release. Kelley and Smith heighten this therapeutic pastiche by turning the show’s outer lobby into a child psychiatrist’s waiting room. Stacks of parenting magazines litter a coffee table, along with one well-thumbed copy of Vanity Fair.

For those seeking novelty, ‘A Voyage of Growth and Discovery’ might disappoint. Smith and Kelley have explored these motifs since the 1980s, while the powerfully effective video-plus-sculpture format was the fulcrum for Kelley’s terrific 2005 ‘Day is Done’ -- a high school musical performed as installation art. But American society’s enforced infantilism is no less rich a subject now than it has ever been. This is one painful voyage destined to spin its wheels.

--Christopher Knight West of Rome at the Farley Building, 1669 Colorado Blvd., Eagle Rock, (626) 793-1504, through Aug. 26. Closed Mon. and Tues.