The Wit and Wetness of Mike Kelley

Los Angeles-based artist Mike Kelley represents the Southland in “Awards in the Visual Arts 7,” a County Museum of Art exhibition that will feature works by 10 artists from across the nation.

The multimedia show, Thursday through July 17, comprises about 60 works. Kelley, a witty conceptualist, has contributed nine pieces from two sharply divergent series, “Plato’s Cave, Rothko’s Chapel, Lincoln’s Profile” and “Kappa.”

Many of the simple black-and-white drawings in “Plato’s Cave” are “about wetness or secreting liquids,” Kelley said recently. “Alphabet 85,” in which a woman drools drops of saliva that are labeled with letters, shows that “all the possible permutations of language are rooted in this wet cavity,” he said.


In contrast, the works in “Kappa” relate to a “nasty” Japanese mythological creature of that name and include a large colorful painting and “Kappa’s Scalp,” a wig in a glass case, as well as black-and-white paintings, said the 33-year-old artist.

The only thematic link between the two series is the “wetness” Kelley speaks of in relation to “Plato’s Cave,” which he said created “ripe territory for sexual metaphors.”

“ ‘Kappa’ was in a group exhibit I did in Japan,” he said. “I don’t remember the exact name of the show, but it was something like ‘Artists From Around the Pacific Rim.’ I thought of that as all these countries around this big pond.”

Linkage and association are usually uppermost in the artist’s mind. His most recent local solo show, at the Rosamund Felsen Gallery, juxtaposed cozy stuffed animal sculptures and stark, almost text-book-like renderings of human intestines.

“I like to go for contrast because the point of my work is not about trying to maintain a stylistic consistency,” he said. “It’s about linking up certain things--how different kinds of things are connected.”

“I really go for big schisms. I think it forces you to think that what you’re looking at is about something more than just the pretty object in front of you. Putting these diverse things together forces you to see the individual pieces in a different way.”

“Awards in the Visual Arts” is an annual exhibition organized by the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art in North Carolina to recognize and support artists nationwide through exhibits, cash awards and grants to museums to purchase the artists’ works. Kelley said he received a cash award, as well as being included in the traveling show.

Howard Fox, the L.A. County museum’s curator of contemporary art, juried the exhibit along with four other prominent art professionals.

DOWNTOWN DISPLAY: Eighteen paintings from the Frederick R. Weisman Collection have been placed on view at Los Angeles City Hall. They will remain there for about two years.

The contemporary artworks by Frank Stella, Laddie John Dill, Keith Haring, Joe Goode and others are displayed in halls adjacent to the City Hall rotunda, the mayor’s conference room and the building’s east foyer.

The paintings constitute one of 10 groups of Weisman Collection works on long-term loan in the United States and abroad while plans to create a permanent home for the collection are made. Weisman, a Los Angeles businessman, has been unsuccessfully searching for such a center here for about 10 years.

Henry Hopkins, director of the collection, said recently that Weisman is “increasingly interested in programs and less interested in a building” to house the multimillion-dollar, 300-piece collection of modern and contemporary art.

While continuing to send parts of the collection on tour, Weisman is thinking of establishing a local center with an 8,000-square-foot exhibit space plus offices for such activities as workshops and the administration of fellowships or grants to young contemporary artists, Hopkins said.

The new concept “becomes more flexible, more lively, and we also feel it serves the community better” than an exhibition facility only, Hopkins said. “We are being very conscious about not competing with any existing agency,” he added.