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ART REVIEW : Mike Kelley, at Large in Europe : A touring survey of the L.A.-based <i> provocateur</i> finds him again exploring criminal creativity and skewering the idea that art should be good for you

<i> Christopher Knight is a Times art critic</i>

The prismatic rainbow of color in Mike Kelley’s corridor of criminality, “Pay for Your Pleasure,” provides a tasty coating of sugar for the bitter pill its several dozen culture-heroes demand that viewers swallow. Lining the installation’s narrow hallway are looming portrait heads of celebrated male artists, poets, patrons and philosophers, all rendered in colorfully graphic style, like so many T-shirt advertisements in the back of the New York Review of Books.

Painted from photographs by a commercial artist, each is paired with a disconcerting quotation by its culturally revered subject, a quotation pointed in its insistence on the outlaw dimension of creativity. A sampling:

* “I think the destructive element is too much neglected in art.” --Piet Mondrian

* “I love the unfrocked priest, the freed convict; they are without past and without future and so live in the present.” --Francis Picabia

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* “Men like Benvenuto Cellini (artists) ought not be bound by laws.” --Pope Paul III

By the time you reach the end of the hallway, the dissonance between all those happy-land colors and such dour declarations becomes a full-fledged moral conundrum. For there, taking the place of a heroic summation about creative criminality, you find exactly the reverse: Kelley has installed a work of art made in prison by a convicted murderer, a candid example of criminal creativity.

At the 1988 debut of “Pay for Your Pleasure” in Chicago, a painting by mass murderer John Wayne Gacy was shown in the hall. At the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, which owns the installation, a drawing by “Freeway Killer” William Bonin has been displayed. And, at the Institute of Contemporary Arts here, in the compact, 12-year survey of the L.A.-based artist’s work that has been traveling in Europe since April, the corridor leads to a blocky portrait-bust, created in cement in 1977 by Glasgow gangster Jimmy Boyle. The piece gets made wryly site-specific, as the murderer’s art changes with each location in which “Pay for Your Pleasure” is shown.

Kelley’s provocative installation gaily throws a monkey wrench into all sorts of entrenched assumptions about art. One is the romantic faith in art’s value as a universal gauge of personal authenticity and worth. Another is the blandly sentimental assumption that art’s highest purpose is to be redemptive.

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The gooey notion that art should somehow be good for you--Vitamin C for the soul--is very American, and it’s a sentiment Kelley skewers with Catholic wit.

Because the one original work of art in the installation turns out to have been created by an evil villain, he’s placed contribution boxes at the entrance to the corridor, into which visitors are invited to deposit cash for charitable organizations assisting victims of violent crimes. You’re bluntly reminded to pay for your voyeuristic pleasure, as you sidle up to peruse the killer’s aesthetic product. Like old-fashioned religious indulgences, the contribution boxes let you relieve your gnawing cultural guilt.

Kelley has been shown regularly in international exhibitions in the last few years--"Pay for Your Pleasure” was well received in Berlin’s big “Metropolis” show in 1991--and curiosity about his prior endeavors has risen accordingly. This survey is the first in-depth look at his art for European audiences. “Mike Kelley: Works, 1979-1991" presents a provocative if tightly condensed sketch of the artist’s protean development during the last dozen years.

It also provides an enticing preview of what we can look forward to in 1993, when New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art holds a full-scale, mid-career retrospective. (It will travel to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in the summer of 1994.) The European survey, organized by Thomas Kellein for the Kunsthalle in Basel, Switzerland, has also been seen in abbreviated form in Frankfurt, Germany, and its tour has drawn such interest that, late last month, an additional venue was added: the Museum of Contemporary Art in Bordeaux, France (Sept. 18 to Nov. 22).

London’s ICA is not large, but seven complete or partial bodies of work are being shown, together with assorted drawings. The show begins with spirited self-portraits of the artist as a haunted poltergeist, cotton “ectoplasm” streaming skyward from his nose. The hilarious images, which lampoon art’s spiritual inner visions, were made in 1979 in collaboration with artist David Askevold, shortly after Kelley’s graduation from CalArts.

Chronologically, drawings, slides and props for the important 1982-83 performance piece “Confusion” are next, followed by a selection of the large, colorful, often achingly defiant (and funny) felt banners from 1987-88. (Imagine Sister Corita or the Singing Nun filtered through a psychopathic Henri Matisse, and you’ll have some idea of the banners’ graphic look.) Then comes “Pay for Your Pleasure,” and selections of the altered illustrations from high school history and social studies books, 1989’s “Reconstructed History.”

Finally, the show is completed by “Craft Morphology Flow Chart,” a diabolical, anthropological analysis of homemade stuffed animals that was among the standouts at last year’s Carnegie International in Pittsburgh, Pa., as well as by “Lumpenprole,” a large 1991 floor sculpture that, to my knowledge, has not been shown in the United States.

In all these works, Kelley is engaged in a relentless inquiry into the often sentimentalized role ascribed to art and artists by the modern world, with “the artist as transgressor” a prominent theme. Here, the transgressor of society’s restrictive status quo is more than likely to be presented in the guise of the acne-studded adolescent misfit engaged in disorderly conduct, rather than as the artist who busts up formal limits.

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Kelley’s art creates a distinct tension between a kind of embraceable “all-American Everyman” and those teeming hordes our culture typically batters down. Take the big, room-size crocheted blanket in “Lumpenprole.” Laid out on the floor, its flat pattern of multicolored, zigzag stripes is interrupted and given bulging dimension by assorted, highly suggestive lumps. As with the guilty pleasure attendant to scrutiny of a murderer’s art, the audience engages in sly, bedroom voyeurism.

What’s going on under the big blanket is more than meets the eye--or, rather, more than doesn’t meet the eye, given the hiddenness of the activity. The floor-bound disposition of the piece, which Kelley has used in a number of works incorporating blankets and stuffed animals, clearly means to recall the canvas-on-the-floor technique with which Jackson Pollock made his famous drip-paintings.

Here, however, the conception of Pollock’s art as a field of transcendent activity is both recognized and repudiated. In this tribute to the alienated and antisocial “lumpenproletariat"--of which Pollock himself could be considered to have been a member--the energetic life force locked deep within the inner fabric of the work of art is rather more basic than what is usually ascribed to Abstract Expressionist painting. Sex, as Baudelaire frankly told us, is the poetry of the people.

Kelley’s frequent use of old, tatty stuffed animals and awkwardly handmade plush toys salvaged from the ignominy of the thrift shop is most prominently represented by the sprawling “Craft Morphology Flow Chart.” Diversified assortments of dolls have been photographed as if convicts, measured like candidates for the morgue and laid out for inspection in familial groupings on rows of cheap folding tables. An arts-and-crafts fair in the neighborhood church basement is seamlessly merged with a Joseph Mengele-like laboratory.

The grubby toys are surrogates for the idealized dreams of childhood that have been inevitably battered, soiled and damaged. They deftly upend the common cliche in Modern art of youth as a gateway to a lost realm of purity and innocence. In Kelley’s art, childhood is a breeding ground for disappointment, prelude to the nightmare of adolescence.

Teetering between youthful promise and adult constriction, the grim fun house of adolescence is a pivot for much of his work--as it is for a substantial number of provocative, younger American artists today. In Kelley’s case, there’s an added resonance. As his floor pieces simultaneously embrace and reject the founding ethos of Pollock for contemporary American art, so his gleeful use of adolescent metaphors does the same for the hot-rodding, anti-intellectual, surfer-boy high jinks that, in the 1960s, shaped the founding ethos of art in Los Angeles. Kelley remakes them both, and takes art to a new plateau.

Institute of Contemporary Arts, the Mall, London SW 1, (071) 930-3647, through July 19.


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